Forgotten Aircraft: Avro’s First Bombers (Part 2)

<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 1)

The Avro 549 Aldershot

AvroHaving expanded exponentially over the previous four years, the end of the war in 1918 and the vicious cull of advanced aircraft projects for the still infant Royal Air Force threatened the very existence of the plethora of British aircraft manufacturers that had emerged. Even producing some of the war’s most legendary aircraft was no guarantee of survival as was proven by Sopwith who having made a name for themselves with their Camel and Pup fighters, disappeared in 1920 after entering voluntary liquidation and then having their assets absorbed by Hawker.

The name A. V. Roe (Avro), had become most associated with trainer aircraft during the war and so was less of a household name than the more glamorous manufacturers like Bristol, Sopwith or the Royal Aircraft Factory. This overshadows the importance of types such as the Avro 504 trainer to the war effort which as well as being used as a warplane in its own right, produced thousands of pilots for the front. Avro used this experience after the war to begin producing sporting aircraft for the civil market to be bought up by many of the demobilised military pilots who wanted to keep flying. This would then generate the money to keep it functioning while waiting for impending lucrative government contracts.

An early success story for the company came in the form of the Avro 534 Baby which went on to take part in numerous races and set distance records at the hands of the “Australian Lone Eagle” Bert Hinkler. On May 31st 1920 he made a non-stop flight from Croydon to Turin, a distance of 655 miles, in 9 hours 30 minutes. Another Avro Baby made the first ever flight between London and Moscow in 1922 while another example was expected to support Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition but vital components for the aircraft failed to arrive in time before he set off.

Avro 555 Bison carrier aircraftUnfortunately, these technological successes failed to truly translate in to financial success and Avro was forced to sell off much of its land holdings it acquired during the war in order to keep the company going. In 1921, Avro secured one of the few highly coveted government contracts when it’s Avro 555 was selected to meet a requirement for a carrier-capable reconnaissance and gunnery spotting aircraft. A total of 53 Avro 555 Bisons were eventually built in two main variants and helped keep Avro’s foot in the government’s door.

In 1920, the Air Ministry began finalising the specifications for a new interim bomber to replace a number of the RAF’s wartime types still in service. The new specification was quietly centred around a possible war breaking out with France now that Germany and Austro-Hungary ceased to be any real influence on the continent. France was increasingly feeling threatened by the influence the British Empire’s economy had on the world stage much to her own detriment while Britain was suspicious of France’s resistance to disarmament efforts. As a result the specification envisioned a bomber powered by the Rolls Royce Condor engine that was capable of carrying a 1,800lb bomb in excess of 500 miles so that it could attack targets in and around Paris from bases in south-east England.

Whereas during the war, the time between drawing board to prototype to production order could be measured in just a few months there was now less urgency which allowed engineers more time to perfect their designs before construction began. It also allowed the Air Ministry to be a little more fussy about selecting designs to be funded at prototype level. Avro was one of a small number of companies who responded to the requirement which had garnered some controversy amongst RAF and aviation industry leaders over its use of only one, albeit powerful, engine when at least two was the norm for an aircraft of this type.

The thinking behind the Air Ministry’s decision was that the single-engine shape should allow for higher levels of performance while aircraft with two or more engines were often more costly, more problematic, more unreliable or in some cases their performance was simply lacking compared to single-engined types. Opponents argued however that two or more engines increased reliability and survivability in the air and that the technology was advancing to overcome these shortcomings albeit at greater expense.

Avro and De Havilland were both shortlisted and given contracts to produce prototypes for testing. Avro’s design was for a three bay biplane with wooden wings and a steel-framed fuselage covered in plywood and fabric. It had a wingspan of 68ft, a length of 39ft and was nearly 15.5ft tall sitting on four large main wheels when on the ground. The crew comprised of a pilot, navigator/bomb-aimer and up to two defensive gunners armed with .303 (7.7mm) Lewis machine guns; one in the rear fuselage and one in the ventral position although the latter position would seldom be used. As dictated by the Air Ministry, the new aircraft was fitted with the Rolls Royce Condor V-12 engine. This was a more powerful development of the earlier Rolls Royce Eagle which powered the Vickers Vimy bomber but could churn out around 650hp.

The new Avro aircraft was given the in-house number of 549 before adopting the name “Aldershot” and the prototype, J6952 made its first flight during October 1921 from Hamble Aerodrome in Southampton. There was little time to celebrate however for De Havilland’s aircraft, which was now known as the DH.27 Derby, achieved its first flight within days of the Aldershot. Testing of both aircraft began which for Avro revealed poor directional control from the tail resulting in the aircraft being taken back to the factory to have a 6ft extension added to the rear fuselage to alleviate the problem. The landing gear was also later revised which saw the two inner wheels removed.

Avro Aldershot III J6952

These improvements were made to the second prototype whilst it was under construction. At this time, the Air Ministry began revising its specification regarding the offensive armament the aircraft was expected to carry. Originally it was expected to carry a single 1,800lb bomb but this was changed to either four 500lbs or eight 250lbs. Fortunately, this didn’t require major modifications and the Aldershot could carry the four 500 pounders externally while a bomb bay allowed it to carry the smaller weapons internally which decreased drag significantly.

The De Havilland Derby on the other hand had to carry all its weapons externally which hampered the aircraft’s performance that was already at a disadvantage to the Aldershot being 420lbs heavier while powered by the same engine. Comparing the two aircraft through 1921 it was obvious the Aldershot was the superior type and on January 26th 1922, Avro was awarded a contract for 15 production aircraft built to Aldershot III specification that was essentially the same as the second prototype.

With the conclusion of the test programme, it was decided to adapt the first prototype to undertake trials with the Napier Cub engine. This had the potential to be an awesomely powerful aeroengine for the time being the first in the world to churn out 1,000hp and like the Aldershot was developed in response to the Air Ministry’s interest in large, powerful single-engined bomber types. It achieved this figure with 16 cylinders arranged in an “X” pattern with the bottom rows angled more narrowly than the ones on top to Avro Aldershot II Napier Cubease the pressure on the crankshaft.

In order to accept the 35% more powerful engine, the Aldershot’s airframe had to be considerably strengthened and the nose section had an extra set of exhaust pipes to expel the gases from the lower bank of cylinders (Right). The original two-blade propeller was replaced with a large four-bladed prop each blade of which was 18in at its widest point.

Known as the Aldershot II, the Cub-powered aircraft first flew on December 15th 1922 and was at that time the most powerful single-engined aircraft in the world; something Avro was quick to publicise. Some of Avro’s own literature started referring to the aircraft as the Avro “Cub” although this was not officially adopted and they claimed a top speed in the region of 140mph. This was 30mph faster than the regular Condor-powered Aldershot III that the RAF was taking on charge but this speed came at the cost of reduced endurance.

The RAF began to receive their first operational Aldershot IIIs in July 1924 with the aircraft being taken on charge with No.99 Squadron based at RAF Bircham Newton. Delivery had been delayed by the adoption of the newer Condor III engine but the 15 aircraft ordered was enough for the squadron to form two separate flights during that summer. No.99 Squadron used the aircraft primarily for the night bombing role although unusually they flew in the silver colour scheme that was adopted by day units of the time.

Avro Aldershot III

Conceived as an interim type until more advanced aircraft were available, the Aldershot was never going to have a stellar career in the RAF but the increasing dissatisfaction with both it and the thinking behind its conception conspired to doom the aircraft to having one of the shortest frontline careers in the service’s history. Confidence in the single-engined heavy bomber concept proved short lived but even more damning was that for all its technical innovation, the Aldershot was little better (and sometimes worse) than the wartime types it was expected to replace. With the RAF deciding against any further acquisitions,  No.99 Squadron would gain the somewhat unique distinction of being the only frontline operator of the type in history. They would relinquish their last Aldershots in March 1926, just 20 months after they first arrived, replacing them with Handley Page Hyderabads.

The first prototype and the sole Aldershot II, J6952 would actually outlive the production types it spawned. It continued testing the Napier Cub engine until late 1926 by which time its development was cancelled after just six engines had been built. J6952 was then re-engined once again, this time with the Beardmore Typhoon I slow-revving engine. This engine aimed to produce higher power with lower revolutions than a standard aeroengine. J6952 was redesignated as an Aldershot IV and first flew with the Typhoon on January 10th 1927. Testing showed that the new engine gave the aircraft a much smoother ride than either the Condor or Cub engines but government support for it was already fizzling out and no production order was made.

This brought an end to the story of the Avro Aldershot itself. It formed the basis for the Avro Andover flying ambulance and transport aircraft but like its forebear, the Andover was less than spectacular and only four were built. Experience gained with the Aldershot would influence some of Avro’s later design work but the aircraft itself occupies a mere footnote in aviation history.

 

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Gloster Goral

Born in war, the immediate post-war period was both a time of optimism and frustration for the new born Royal Air Force. On the one hand, military aviation had been firmly established as an indispensable tool of war but the concept of an air arm independent of both army and navy was seen as an unnecessary expense in peacetime. Coupled with the tightening of the national purse, it meant that after 1918 the RAF had to fight for every penny from the government and make the most of everything they had not only keep the service viable but alive.

Airco DH.9AThroughout 1918, numerous companies were developing new and more advanced aircraft ready for the front in 1919 but the armistice on November 11th 1918 saw many of these projects curtailed. The RAF were thus left to operate the best picks of their wartime inventory from 1918 among them of which was the Airco DH.9A. The DH.9A was an excellent light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft and when its performance is compared to the Avro 504s and Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2s that the Royal Flying Corps went to war with in 1914 it becomes strikingly clear how quickly military aviation advanced in just four years of fighting.

Peace in Europe however did not translate in to world peace and the RAF went back to war almost immediately supporting the anti-Bolshevik “White” Russians in the Russian Civil War. The RAF also flew intensive operations policing the British Empire which now included former Ottoman Empire territories that were resentful of their new British masters. The DH.9A proved adept in these theatres being rugged and reliable but over time it became clear that they needed replacing and in the mid-1920s the RAF began to seriously look at its options. Under Air Specification 26/27, the RAF told Britain’s aircraft manufacturers that in order to reduce costs the winning design would have to make the maximum use of DH.9A parts that were readily available. Emphasis would also have to be placed on suitability for policing the Empire with all the harsh and primitive operational environments that entailed. With the relative drying up of government orders in the 1920s, the aircraft manufacturers were quick to respond to the specification. Eight companies drew up plans for an aircraft to meet the RAF’s requirements including Bristol, de Havilland, Fairey Aviation, Gloster, Vickers and Westland.

The Gloster submission was headed up by two well respected aircraft designers namely Captain S. J. Waters who had previously worked for Fairey and H. P. Folland who had worked for the Sopwith company during the war. The resulting design was essentially the mating of a new oval-shaped, all-metal frame, fabric-covered fuselage with the wings from a DH.9A. Careful consideration was given to the need to make repairs in the field and so the aircraft was designed to allow key metal components to be replaced with wooden ones should the need arise. In theory, the aircraft could have been manufactured with an all-wooden frame and this was offered as an option to potential export customers. The fuselage was essentially built in three whole main sections that could be quickly separated if the aircraft needed to be transported by sea or rail and then reassembled relatively quickly. With humidity being a constant problem in parts of the Empire such as India a great deal of rust proofing was incorporated in to the frame.

Gloster Goral J8673 Bristol Jupiter

The aircraft had a crew of two with the pilot sat under the wing trailing edge with a cutout above his head for vertical visibility. The gunner/observer sat behind him in a position raised several inches higher and had a single 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis machine gun mounted on a ring to provide defensive firepower and to complement the pilot’s own 0.303 Vickers machine that was synchronised to fire through the propeller arc. The aircraft had provision for carrying a variety of light bomb configurations up to 460lbs total.

The Air Ministry specification had originally highlighted the Napier Lion 12-cylinder ‘broad arrow’ W12 engine as the preferred choice to power the winning design because it was readily available. Developed for military purposes in 1917, it was the most powerful Allied aeroengine when it entered service and had seen considerable use in civilian and racing circles. However, Gloster defied this requirement and went with the newer and more advanced Bristol Jupiter series of radial engines. They had briefly considered the even more complex Siddeley Jaguar 14-cylinder, two-row radial engine but this was seen as too risky to propose to the conservative RAF. The Jupiter was a nine-cylinder, single-row, air-cooled radial engine that despite having a lengthy development period that even saw its original manufacturer, Cosmos Engineering, go bankrupt had developed in to a fine powerplant that was seeing increasing use in both military and civilian aircraft. Gloster was not alone in this choice with Bristol themselves and more notably Westland selecting this engine for their own similar aircraft.

As construction of the first prototype was nearing completion it was fitted with the Jupiter VIA which developed 425hp and drove a two-bladed propeller 12ft in diameter. The prototype was given the serial J-8673 and was christened the Goral after a type of mountain goat found in northern India which reflected its planned use to police the Empire. The prototype took to the air for the first time on February 8th 1927 and once it was proven airworthy it was handed over to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Martlesham Heath for evaluation. Over the coming months, it was joined by other contenders for Air Specification 26/27 including Westland’s design which had been christened the Wapiti. The prototype was returned to Gloster at least twice to have the design tweaked and the engine replaced with the more powerful Jupiter VIIIF that churned out 480hp but it was to no avail and the Wapiti was declared the winner.

Gloster Goral J8673 Bristol Jupiter A&amp;AEE

Compared to the Wapiti the Goral was faster, had a greater service ceiling and a longer range while the Wapiti had a marginally higher bomb load. However, where the Wapiti won was that it shared a much higher degree of commonality with the DH.9A which was one of the key points of the Air Ministry’s specification in the first place. Westland had a distinct advantage over the competition in that they had produced DH.9As under license and were far more familiar with it. In October 1927, the Air Ministry placed an initial order for 25 Wapitis confirming that the Goral had no future with the RAF but Gloster kept the aircraft on the books hoping to attract foreign interest.

Despite some passing enquiries, nothing really materialised until 1931 when an Argentinian purchasing commission which had set up an office in Brussels sent a request for information on the aircraft to Gloster. The commission confirmed their interest but expressed concerns that the aircraft was unsafe and believed this was why the Air Ministry had rejected it. The Air Ministry responded by sending the Argentinians a detailed letter outlining that the aircraft was not only safe but well suited to the Argentinian requirements. Unfortunately, the Argentinians didn’t resply to the letter and a short while later they placed an order with France for the Breguet Br.19; an aircraft of similar performance and configuration.

Thus the Goral was lost to history.

SPECIFICATION

Gloster Goral

  • Role: Two seat light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft
  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 31ft 6in (9.4m)
  • Wingspan: 46ft 7in (14.19m)
  • Height: 11ft 4in (3.3m)
  • Empty weight: 2,796lbs (1,268kg)
  • Gross weight: 4,441lbs (2,014 kg)
  • Powerplant(s):
    (i) 1 × Bristol Jupiter VIA 9-cylinder radial (425hp)
    (ii) 1 x Bristol Jupiter VIIIF 9-cylinder radial (480hp)
  • Maximum speed: at 5,000ft (1,524 m) 136mph (218km/h)
  • Maximum Range: 750 miles (1,207 km)
  • Service ceiling: 21,500ft (6,552m)
  • Armament:
    1× synchronised forward firing 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers machine gun
    1× 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun mounted on ring in gunner’s cockpit
    Up to 460lbs of bombs

80 Years Of A True Legend Of The Skies

K5054 Spitfire

March 5th 2016 marks an incredible 80 years since the first flight of the Supermarine Spitfire. The first prototype, K5054, designed by Reginald J. Mitchell, took off from Eastleigh Aerodrome on March 5th 1936 and while it may have looked a little rough around the edges it was unmistakably a Spit’ with its beautiful wing shape and smooth lines.

During World War II it was these stunning looks coupled with the throaty sound of its Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that helped raise the spirits of the British people as they found themselves facing a seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine. It’s use as a propaganda machine was every bit as important as its use as a weapon of war. As well as serving the Royal Air Force, a carrier capable variant known as the Seafire was developed for the Royal Navy who continued to fly them on operations in the Korean War.

A number of events are taking place around the UK to celebrate the anniversary including a flypast of the site of the former Supermarine factory in Woolston where the aircraft were assembled by one of the numerous aircraft still flying today.

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More articles about the Spitfire on Defence of the Realm

What’s it like to dogfight in an F-35?

Last year the news came out that the F-35 was beaten in a dogfight by the F-16. The story was just the latest in a series of worrying reports about just how effective an F-35 Lightning II will be in combat.

Yesterday, an article appeared in The Aviationist written by a Norwegian pilot experienced in both the F-16 and the F-35 describing how the Lightning II offers him far more advantages than the F-16 in combat.

You can read it by clicking here.

I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts afterwards by commenting below.

The Story of the Anglo-French Variable Geometry (AFVG) Aircraft Project

The advent of the jet engine brought about a revolution in military aircraft the likes of which had not been seen since the Wright Brothers trialled fitting a machine gun to their revolutionary Wright Flyer. Aircraft were becoming faster, could fly higher and carry more weapons than ever before. It literally rewrote the book on aerial warfare but in the early days, like in most technological revolutions, it was wrought with difficulties. Designing the new aircraft to make the most of the jet engine particularly at high speeds resulted in compromised slower speed performance. If we look at the English Electric Lightning, it was designed to climb very high very quickly and accelerate to beyond Mach 2. To achieve this the design team created an aircraft with minimal drag and long sharply swept back wings but this resulted in an aircraft with very poor slow speed, low altitude performance. By comparison the Blackburn Buccaneer was designed to operate at its best at low level and so had very thick wings with rather modest sweep that blessed it with good low level performance but was a relative slouch higher up.

Lightning Red Top

The Lightning was designed for speed and nothing else

Designing aircraft this way was all well and good if it was to have just one mission in mind but the advancement of weapons technology coupled with the increasing costs of fielding fleets of combat aircraft tailored to one role meant that by the advent of the 1960s air forces were increasingly becoming interested in the concept of multi-role aircraft. These aircraft could be configured to attack an enemy airfield one day, carry out reconnaissance the next day and still be adept enough at air-to-air combat to defend itself. It was not an entirely new concept with most fighter aircraft during World War II being used in the ground attack role at some point although they were not as effective as dedicated attack aircraft.

Just how such an aircraft should be designed was the problem facing aerospace engineers of the day. Should it emphasize high speed and altitude performance with a sharply swept, possibly delta, wing or should emphasis be on low level performance where the speeds aren’t as high and so a less sharply swept wing offers the best performance? The answer, many thought, lay in a wing that could change its level of sweep to suit the flight parameters that were required of it at any given time. Where speed was needed the wings could be swept fully back to improve aerodynamic performance but at slower speeds the wings could be swept forward to improve handling. Additionally, the wings could be swept fully forward for landing and take-off to produce the maximum lift thus reducing take-off distance and landing speeds.

Messerschmitt Me P.1101

Messerschmitt P.1101 (The-Blueprints.com)

This was the birth of the golden age of variable-geometry wings known more commonly as “swing wings” and there were many proposals for their application in military aircraft. In Britain, a very early leap in to the world of variable-geometry wing technology began when Westland produced the Westland-Hill Pterodactyl experimental aircraft in the 1920s and 1930s that had pivoting wing tips. The Germans took a far greater interest in variable-geometry technology producing the Messerschmitt Me P.1101 although its wings could not be altered in-flight. Instead the aircraft had to be configured on the ground for the type of flight it was expected to undertake. After the war the P.1101 project was transferred to the United States and Bell Aircraft developed the X-5 test aircraft based on Messerschmitt’s research. Back in the UK, the famed inventor of the Vickers Wellington bomber and the “bouncing bomb” used by the Dambusters, Barnes Wallis, proposed a number of tailless designs with variable geometry wings for airliners and bombers but even his genius found stiff opposition from more conservative elements within the Air Ministry.

The problem was the technology for variable-geometry winged aircraft was still very primitive and faced a number of obstacles the biggest one being the sheer weight of the mechanisms used for pivoting the wings. This necessitated a large design with very powerful engines to get it airborne and still have performance comparable to more conventional aircraft. Then there were the problems of having pivoting pylons for weapons so that as the wings swept back they would keep facing forwards; something Soviet engineers didn’t really address with their variable-geometry aircraft until the Sukhoi Su-24. Nevertheless, aircraft technology and research in variable-geometry wings continued through the 1950s at an almost breakneck pace.

Canberra PR.7

GOR.339 sought a replacement for the Canberra medium bomber

In 1957, the British Ministry of Supply issued General Operational Requirement 339 (GOR.339) to Britain’s plethora of aviation companies. The requirement recognised the impending obsolescence of the English Electric Canberra medium bomber in the face of the new high performance Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) being fielded by the Soviet Union and sought a replacement. The requirement went further than simply replacing the Canberra however. It outlined a highly advanced aircraft capable of carrying out several types of combat and reconnaissance (including electronic reconnaissance) missions in the face of a dense threat environment at very low level and high speed. In the typical British pluckiness of the 1950s, Britain’s aviation companies which were revered around the world for their technical skill rose to the challenge.

But 1957 would prove a bad year for manned aircraft development in the UK.

The ink was barely dry on the papers outlining the requirement when the Conservative Government Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys, issued his now notorious 1957 White Paper that brutally cancelled nearly all manned aircraft development on the belief that within the following decade, guided missiles would render them obsolete. GOR.339 managed to survive the chopping board, it possibly being seen as something of a stop-gap until such missiles were made ready, but it was not left unscathed and it was clear that no company’s submission would be taken seriously if it were not in partnership with another. The reasoning behind this was that with few-to-no orders in the foreseeable future the remaining companies would have to settle for shares in all future aircraft projects if they wanted to survive. It was the beginning of the so-called “rationalisation” of the British aviation industry.

TSR.2

BAC TSR.2 (commons.wikimedia)

One such company that responded to GOR.339 was Vickers-Armstrong with whom Barnes Wallis had carried out a lot of his research in to variable-geometry wing technology. Vickers-Armstrong examined ways that the technology could be applied to an aircraft that met the requirements of GOR.339 but when the company was absorbed in to the British Aircraft Corporation or BAC in 1960 the decision was eventually taken to adopt an advanced thin wing design put forward by English Electric in to what became the BAC TSR.2.

However, this was far from the end of the story. BAC still had an interest in variable-geometry wings spurred on by events in the United States where the sophisticated General Dynamics F-111 was taking shape. With TSR.2 set to replace the Canberra, BAC decided to start work on developing an aircraft that could replace the RAF’s fleet of fighter-bombers and light attack aircraft such as the Hawker Hunter FGA.9 that would make use of variable-geometry wings. Designated the P.45 the project did not have official government backing instead being carried out on BAC’s own time and money. Two proposals were put forward for powering the aircraft the first of which saw it powered by two RB.172 turbofan engines based on the French Adour fitted with an afterburner that would have produced around 13,500lbs of thrust for the aircraft. The other proposal called for it to be powered by a single afterburning RB.168 Spey low-bypass turbofan engine which promised even more power but was still under development when BAC approached the government with their project in 1964 (early versions of the engine were only just being fitted to the BAC 1-11 at the time).

BAC P 45 AFVG

BAC P.45 proposal (North West Heritage)

BAC’s timing could not have been worse.

In October 1964, Harold Wilson’s Labour government took power and very quickly began mopping up the survivors of their Conservative predecessor’s 1957 cull of British aircraft development. Within a year the TSR.2 was taken outside and shot; quite literally as some of the completed airframes were used to test the effects of bullets on modern combat aircraft. Not having been financed by the government in the first place the P.45 project survived but without any real financial support was left in limbo.

TSR.2 ii

Scrapped TSR.2s (Key)

Just as British military aircraft development appeared to be coming to an end the new government put forward a vision for its future and that lay in collaborating with other countries. There were a number of benefits to such a policy the biggest being of course the cost. Britain could work with a partner nation on developing an aircraft to suit its needs but only have to contribute a portion of the development and manufacturing costs. This would keep the aviation industry alive and generate a modest return in export sales. It would also have political advantages by strengthening ties both industrially and militarily with the partner nation.

The ideal choice for a partner nation would have been the United States but in the mid-1960s the US economy was booming and this fuelled a defence policy still traumatised by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US had little to gain from collaborating on defence projects with the UK or anyone else but had plenty to gain from exporting its aircraft to her allies under the Mutual Assistance Program (MAP). Therefore, the UK turned to both an old ally and even older rival; France.

Compared to the UK the French military aviation scene was alive and well thanks in no small part to Dassault’s legendary Mirage III series of supersonic fighter-bombers. The Mirage III, while it certainly looked advanced for its day, was actually a relatively primitive aircraft when compared to the latest US warplanes and while the Mirage did sell reasonably well in Europe it was clear the Americans were leading the pack in sales. What France needed was to develop a technologically advanced but affordable aircraft to meet its own needs and challenge US supremacy in Europe and so Britain and France found themselves turning to one another to start what was an unprecedented aviation partnership. The two countries began looking at their requirements to find those that matched so that work could begin on developing an aircraft to meet both needs. One such project called for an advanced weapons trainer and light attack aircraft and this would lead to the superlative SEPECAT Jaguar while in the civil sector a new project began to show off just what European ingenuity could achieve; a supersonic airliner.

In this new spirit of cooperation work on the P.45 was finally given government support when on May 17th 1965 the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding setting out the guidelines for a new European variable-geometry combat aircraft. It was to be called the Anglo-French Variable-Geometry (AFVG) aircraft and a lot was expected of it to say the least. The French were satisfied that their skies were safe with their fleet of Mirage IIIs backed up by NATO and so wanted the aircraft tailored more closely to the strike role. In the UK however the need for a replacement for the English Electric Lightning interceptor fleet was a high priority and so the British wanted an advanced interceptor armed with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapons. The French Navy also had a requirement for a carrier capable version tailored primarily for the fighter role although by this time the Royal Navy had settled on the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom II fitted with British engines for its needs.

BAC worked with the French company Breguet Aviation on what would become the SEPECAT Jaguar on the understanding that Breguet would have the lead in the project. As compensation, the French agreed that the UK and BAC should take the lead on the AFVG project working with Dassault Aviation. For the head of Dassault Aviation, Marcel Dassault, this was intolerable. A stout nationalist and aggressive industrialist, Dassault felt his company was going to be weakened by having to play second-fiddle to the British losing both prestige and a percentage of profits from export sales. Even more crucially his company had initiated work on their own variable-geometry aircraft the year before the Anglo-French agreement and wanted to pursue that to meet the French requirements and export overseas.

Dassault Mirage IVA

Dassault Mirage IV (combatace.com)

Dassault would be momentarily silenced in to cooperation however when the position his company was forced in to with BAC had a potentially profitable side effect. The cancellation of TSR.2 left a void in the RAF’s plans for the future which Harold Wilson’s government wanted to fill by buying the expensive and sophisticated General Dynamics F-111K which would be built in the US. With the government not having signed the contract for them yet, BAC turned to Dassault and proposed developing Dassault’s Mirage IV bomber to meet the requirement. The anglicised Mirage IV (known as Mirage IVK or Mirage IV* depending on the source) would be powered by Rolls-Royce Spey engines and feature a weapons package based on that developed for the TSR.2. BAC believed the aircraft could carry out virtually all the roles expected of the TSR.2 and still undercut the American F-111K project as well as keeping BAC employees working until AFVG production ramped up. There were rumours that the French air force was also interested in their own version powered by the more advanced and capable Spey.

Wilson and his Secretary of State for Defence, Dennis Healey, were having none of it however. With the criticism they had received for the cancellation of TSR.2 fresh in their minds they weren’t about to start funding development of another aircraft for the role even one based on an existing airframe already in service with a trusted ally. There were also political considerations to address such as the consequences of apparently preferring a French aircraft over an American one and what that might do to Anglo-US relations especially when the role envisioned was part of the US-led Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) for dealing with the Soviets which meant carrying nuclear weaponry. BAC and Dassault were told in no uncertain terms to drop the idea and concentrate on the AFVG. This only further angered Marcel Dassault which in turn increased his resentment of his company’s position within the AFVG partnership.

AFVG 1965

Early AFVG sketch (commons.wikimedia)

Regardless of Dassault’s objections, the British and French went to work on the aircraft trying their best to reach some kind of agreement on specifications that would suit both British and French needs. As the project went on in to 1966 the aircraft was finally beginning to shape up on paper at least. It was broadly in the same class as the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom II in terms of projected size and weight and similarly would have a crew of two; a pilot and navigator/weapons operator to handle the advanced weapon systems.

Just as BAC and Dassault collaborated on the airframe, Bristol-Siddeley and SNECMA collaborated on the powerplant. The engine chosen was the Bristol-Siddeley/SNECMA M453G turbofan of which there would be two mounted in the rear fuselage with air fed from two intakes mounted forward of the main wing spar. These were unmistakably of Dassault origin resembling those fitted to the Mirage including the distinctive half-shock cone inlets. The M453G was based on a civil engine that was partly funded by the West German government who wanted it to power the VFW-Fokker 614 twin-engined jetliner. The M453G was listed as being rated at 7,100lbs of thrust increasing to 12,230lbs when the afterburner was engaged. The design team believed that with this engine the aircraft would have a service ceiling of 60,000ft and a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 both of which were quite lofty goals for the time.

As the AFVG was gathering momentum however, events outside of the design team’s control began to interfere. By the start of 1966, France’s position in NATO was reaching breaking point. French President, Charles de Gaulle, had grown increasingly frustrated with US dominance within the alliance and on the European continent in general and had instigated a policy of making France free of US influence. This included France building its own nuclear deterrent but when NATO rejected France’s increasing demands for more authority within the alliance as well as trying to coax NATO to support their actions in their former African colonies the French took the drastic step of withdrawing from NATO. US forces based in France were ordered to leave in March 1966 and while French pride may have had a sudden boost its armed forces were worried by the resultant weakening of their defence particularly in the air. Consequently, the French started to look at the AFVG more as a fighter rather than a strike aircraft as they had originally conceived it.

RAF Phantom FGR.2 AIM-9L

RAF Phantom (massoss.com)

This should have played in to the design team’s hands since now they had a much narrower set of requirements to work with since the British and the French Navy had entered the project on the basis of building a missile armed interceptor. However, across the English Channel the Royal Air Force was now finding itself being handed a number of surplus Phantoms from the Royal Navy as Wilson’s government began to decimate the carrier force. The first RAF Phantoms, diverted from a Royal Navy order, were to be based in the UK supporting the Lightning force in the air defence role. This in turn led to the RAF deciding to acquire more Phantoms for use in the close air support and strike roles in Germany until the mid-1970s when they would adopt the fighter role completely from the Lightning. The RAF would therefore need a strike aircraft to replace the strike-role Phantoms in Germany during the 1970s and began to look at the AFVG as the answer to this requirement (ultimately the Jaguar would fulfil this role).

Therefore, somewhat incredibly both countries had reversed their position on just what role they wanted the AFVG to undertake in less than a year with the French now wanting a fighter and the British wanting a strike aircraft. This only further delayed development work as the specifications were revised again and again. Even worse, the UK government was blundering its way through its F-111K acquisition with the Americans and there was talk of rather than the AFVG supporting the F-111K it was going to have to replace it which increased Britain’s requirements for the type even further only to have it then denied and the previous requirements reinstated.

It was madness.

If there didn’t already seem like there was a conspiracy to collapse the project, it was then revealed that Dassault had been building a prototype of their own variable-geometry aircraft the Mirage G as well as working on the AFVG with BAC. This was in-effect a technology demonstrator proving the variable-geometry concept could work and was intended to lay the groundwork for future all-French aircraft just as Marcel Dassault had wanted from the start. The British sensed treachery but the French government insisted it remained committed to the AFVG.

BAC Dassault AFVG

Full-scale mock-up of the AFVG under construction

In order to throw off the stigma of the AFVG being a paper design, BAC began work on the first full scale mock-up to display in 1967 but despite their promises the French were already showing signs of pulling out due to a combination of projected costs spiralling and the increasing criticism of AFVG by junior partner, Dassault Aviation. With the mock-up almost completed, France finally withdrew from the AFVG project in June 1967 citing cost grounds. It came as little surprise to those involved in the project from BAC who had known for a while that the French had lost any genuine interest in it. For the RAF, and certainly Britain’s reputation, worse was to come in November 1967 when the F-111K was cancelled forcing them to absorb more of the Royal Navy’s hand-me-down aircraft such as the Blackburn Buccaneer and McDonnel Douglas Phantom to at long last replace the ageing Canberra.

Feeling somewhat numbed by the whole appalling affair there were mutterings of BAC going it alone and trying to complete the AFVG aircraft as an all-British design. The AFVG title was dropped, replaced by the rather unimaginative name UKVG standing for United Kingdom Variable-Geometry but funding only trickled down it being just enough to keep it alive at least in research form. Despite the shambolic partnership with the French, which to be fair both sides have to share a certain amount of blame, the British government once again told BAC that they had to find European partners if they wanted to turn the UKVG in to an operational aircraft.

The initial response from Europe was far from encouraging but in 1968 fortune finally began to favour the project’s prospects. In what had been dubbed the “sale of the century”, the Lockheed corporation in America had sold vast numbers of their F-104 Starfighters to European nations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Soon the aircraft was going to need replacing and a research program comprising of a number of F-104 operators such as Belgium, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and West Germany was set up to look in to developing and building a common NATO-oriented multi-role aircraft to replace the Starfighter. Although not an F-104 operator, Britain managed to negotiate itself in to the study with the intention of submitting the UKVG as a contender. The pitch worked and on March 26th 1969 the UK, West Germany, Italy and the Netherlands (who would later wihdraw) formed a multi-national consortium to develop what was now termed the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) and the starting point was the work carried out on the AFVG and UKVG. Thus, from the ashes of the AFVG rose a phoenix in the form of the Panavia Tornado.

RAF Tornado GR4The Tornado has secured itself a place in British military history as one of the greatest aircraft ever fielded by the RAF proving exceptionally capable in the low-level strike role and being able to adopt a wide array of roles. The RAF even adopted a dedicated fighter variant in the form of the Tornado F.3 which has now been replaced by the Typhoon, another European aircraft built on the foundations laid by Tornado. The Tornado continues in British service today in its highly upgraded GR.4 form and while it may be in the twilight of its career it is still defending the realm battling Islamic State in the Middle East using precision guided weapons.

While the Tornado bears only a superficial resemblance to the AFVG/UKVG it would not have been possible without it.

Penetrating the “Stealth” Barrier

January 1991.

A massive armada of military aircraft from a wide array of nations fill the skies over the Persian Gulf to begin the mission to oust Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. Iraq’s air defences are amongst the densest in the world especially around the capital city of Baghdad where Saddam’s regime believed they are safest. And yet for nearly a month coalition bombs rain down on them with impunity by an unseen enemy that prowls the skies almost totally undetected.

F-117 Nighthawk

F-117A Nighthawk

The F-117A Nighthawk captured the world’s imagination during and after the 1991 Gulf War. It’s rakish looks and ability to evade radar detection made it feel like something out of Star Trek and both it and the even more advanced B-2A Spirit stealth bomber enjoyed a reputation of being unstoppable throughout the 1990s. Then on March 27th 1999, this golden age of stealth technology seemed to come to an abrupt end when an F-117A Nighthawk was shot down by Serbian forces during Operation: Allied Force. Despite the circumstances surrounding the loss still being the source of some debate it is clear that US confidence in stealth was shaken and the missions following the incident were flown with more extensive support from conventional combat aircraft. Even the term “stealth” fell out of favour being replaced by “low-observability” indicating that the veil that once protected these aircraft had holes in it.

F-35 Lightning II 1

F-35 Lightning II

The legacy of those missions over Baghdad in 1991 lives on however with the latest combat aircraft possessing some degree of low-observability technology. The goal now is to have a frontline force of combat aircraft that have the same level of protection the F-117A enjoyed in 1991 and nowhere is this more obvious than in the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35 relies heavily on its ability to remain undetected in air combat sacrificing traditional performance for low-observability and advanced weaponry. This has raised more than a few eyebrows from observers and analysts around the world especially in countries where the future of their respective air forces weighs heavily on a fleet of F-35s. The problem is that as the F-117A proved (to an extent), today’s stealth technology may not be of any use tomorrow. Therefore, when tomorrow comes the aircraft has to fall back on its weapons and more traditional air combat tactics.

So how difficult will it be to detect the F-35 and future stealth or low-observability aircraft in the future?

To address this question we must first look at just how these aircraft achieve their low observability. Radar works by sending out a radio signal that bounces off the target aircraft back to the radar dish. By examining the angle of the reflection and the time it takes to travel to and from the target the aircraft’s position can be determined. Aircraft like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II are designed to deflect the radar waves away from the transmitting radar meaning the radar does not get the return signal it needs to identify the location of the aircraft. Additionally, the aircraft have Radar Absorbent Material (RAM) on key parts of the airframe where it is not so easy to deflect the radar signal away. Despite these measures the aircraft are not entirely invisible to radar since it is impossible to completely deflect or absorb the signal but the remaining radar return is so small that only the most sophisticated radar sets can identify it. In this instance the aircraft utilise active electronic countermeasures (ECM) to jam the radar set.

The problem is as low-observability technology becomes more prevalent in military aviation, efforts have been ramped up to defeat it. With such consideration given to defeating radar some militaries and research establishments are looking at alternate ways to detect low-observable aircraft. Here are just some of the options that could render the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II detectable and subject to attack.


 

  1. Multistatic Radar
    Since stealth aircraft work primarily by deflecting radar signals then the immediate answer for detecting them to is to capture those deflected signals. A Multistatic radar system works by utilising numerous emitters/receivers all networked together. If a radar signal sent out by one emitter is deflected, then a second receiver can capture it and use that information to get the aircraft’s location. Post-war analysis showed that this happened by accident in 1991 with Iraqi radars operating on similar frequencies picking up returns from another radar set that had been deflected by the F-117’s design but because there was no networked computer system to analyse the signals they were unable to make use of this advantage.There are numerous problems with this method however. Firstly, the radar sets are themselves vulnerable to attack by anti-radar missiles such as the AGM-88 HARM and ALARM carried by the intruding aircraft. It is also a very costly method whose effectiveness is significantly reduced if a set is destroyed or malfunctioning. It also requires a great deal of processing power.


  2. Low Frequency Radar
    A low frequency radar set is a much clumsier form of detection than a high frequency set. The wavelength of a low frequency radar is significantly larger meaning the signal the stealth aircraft can’t deflect will be larger in its return making it easier for the receiver to capture. Unfortunately, low frequency radars are not as accurate and can only give a rough estimation of the target’s location. They are also susceptible to background noise from other radio sources and like all radars it reveals its location leaving it susceptible to attack.


  3. Passive radar
    The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) has proposed utilising a form of “passive radar” to detect stealth aircraft. This works by harnessing the many thousands of radio and microwave signals that already fill the air from sources such as mobile phones and television signals. Passive radar monitors how these signals move through the air and identifies a disruption to them such as the passing of a physical object (the target aircraft). The system has the advantage of not sending out any signals itself that can be detected and attacked like a traditional radar station meaning the intruding aircraft is unaware it’s been detected. It would also be very hard to effectively jam. Passive radar technology remains quite infantile but development work continues with EADS proposing both military and civilian applications in the future.


  4. Infra-Red Search and Track Systems (IRST)
    An IRST is another passive system that works by detecting the infra-red energy given off by a heat source such as the exhaust of a jet engine or the friction heated fuselage of an aircraft flying at high speed. Using infra-red to detect aircraft is nothing new to the world of air combat with primitive sets being used by German night fighters during World War II to find and destroy RAF bombers. Back then the sets were so large they could only be mounted in converted bombers such as the Dornier Do.17 but they are now so small that they can be mounted on fast jets with relatively little modification.

    Eurofighter 2000 Typhoon FGR.4

    IRST scanner ahead of cockpit

    During the Cold War, aircraft designers in the Soviet Union had far more interest in IRST devices than their counterparts in the west with every major fighter aircraft having an IRST device at the very least optional since the MiG-23 “Flogger” in the 1960s. The F-4 Phantom II initially adopted an IRST as did the F-14A Tomcat before deleting them but the F-15 Eagle or Britain’s Tornado F.3 had no such device. Now however the RAF’s Typhoon FGR.4 has the option to utilise the PIRATE (Passive Infra-Red Airborne Track Equipment) sensor mounted on the port side of the nose just forward of the cockpit which can track up to 200 targets simultaneously.

    Traditional low-observability technology would be ineffective against an IRST since it is impossible to keep an aircraft’s temperature low enough to avoid detection. However, the system is far from perfect with even the most advanced sets being very susceptible to atmospheric conditions. It is also rather short ranged technology compared to traditional radar sets and chaff/flare decoys can temporarily blind them.


  5. Ultraviolet (UV) detectors
    The next generation of small surface-to-air missiles will feature UV filters or rely entirely on UV guidance. The sun gives off huge amounts of UV radiation which an aircraft can block as it flies over head. UV guided weapons detect the UV radiation and effectively lock on to the “hole in the sky” as the seeker would view it and have the advantage of being practically impossible to jam or decoy away. It is impossible for any aircraft to avoid being detected by this method although it’s effectiveness is reduced somewhat at lower levels where excess UV can get in the way of the “hole”.


  6. Acoustic Detection
    One thing all aircraft do is make noise and at altitude that sound can carry for many miles especially when travelling supersonic. The first supersonic airliner, Concorde, found that its biggest selling point – it’s speed – was its biggest drawback in sales because few countries allowed such a large aircraft to fly at supersonic speeds over their territory because of the noise of it’s sonic boom which could be heard up to 50 miles from its location.

    Acoustic mirror

    Acoustic mirror

    Acoustic detection devices work by detecting, amplifying and then identifying the direction a sound came from. Like IRST technology it is not a new concept with devices known as acoustic mirrors being established along the south east of the UK during and after World War I to give warning of an incoming bomber force. While the technology couldn’t locate the exact position of a bomber force it could give enough warning to launch aircraft in to the direction they were coming from as well as allow time for the civilian population to flee to their air raid shelters.

    The advent of radar technology largely negated its effectiveness and use but modern sets using sophisticated computer processing could localise a sound pattern from an intruding aircraft and zero in a fighter which could then use its IRST to prosecute the intercept. The more acoustic devices there are in operation the more accurate the system would be. In principle its operation is not too dissimilar to how submarines use passive acoustic devices to locate an enemy submarine.


  7. Magnetic Anomaly Detection
    Magnetic Anomaly Detectors (MAD) have been used by aircraft to locate submarines since World War II. They work by measuring minute variations in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by a metallic object passing through. Computer processing then tries to narrow down the centre of the disruption thus locating the object. Similar devices have been proposed for detecting stealth aircraft. There has even been research carried out in to radar devices that can monitor the gravimetric field over great distances and by establishing a base reading can identify when a large metal object disrupts it. The technology is far from being perfected but continues to be researched.


  8. Schlieren Photography
    Schlieren Photography

    A Schlieren photogtaph of shockwaves from a gun

    An aircraft flying through the air causes a great deal of disturbance in the atmosphere. It is possible to detect this disturbance using Schlieren photography; a rather complex process involving the observation of deflected light compared to undeflected light in a viewing screen. This process has already been used by aircraft manufacturers to investigate airflow in wind tunnels. If a system could be devised to repeatedly photograph large areas of sky quickly then in theory it could detect a stealth aircraft.

    In the wake of the 1999 shootdown of the F-117A over Serbia many conspiracy theorists suggested that the Chinese had tested an early form of this technology which is what allowed the Serbians to locate the Nighthawk. They believe this is why the Chinese embassy was bombed by the US Air Force in order to destroy the device since it seemed inconceivable that the USAF had carried out the attack by mistake as they claimed.


It’s clear the technology is out there to detect low-observability aircraft. Through one or a combination of these methods an advanced adversary could nullify the advantage of stealth that the US has enjoyed for the past two decades. This is why so many are concerned about the F-35. If the aircraft is effectively reduced to being as visible as an F/A-18 then how well will it perform as traditional fighter?

Given the level of secrecy surrounding the aircraft it is hard to answer this question. Certainly the story of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, an aircraft from the 1970s, defeating it in a mock visual range dogfight doesn’t help its case but how representative of a real battle were these tests? If detected the F-35 will have to fall back on its weapon system which few would deny is an advanced piece of kit. While the Sukhoi Su-35BM is claimed to be far more manoeuvrable and faster, if the F-35’s weapon system is as advanced as promised then both these advantages are completely nullified. If further proof of how important weapon technology is over aircraft performance were required, then one need only look to the Falklands War where British Harriers using advanced AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles proved unbeatable in air combat against Argentine Mirages that on paper had the advantage of speed.

F-35 Lightning II 3

 

One final important note; unless a major global conflict breaks out the F-35 like the aircraft it is replacing (F-15, F-16, F/A-18, Tornado) may never face a truly modern enemy with the very latest detection equipment meaning it will remain “stealthy”. It may be fashionable to criticise the F-35 for being a poor aeroplane but it remains to be seen what kind of weapon it will be.

Royal Aircraft Factory A.E.3 – The Farnborough Ram

Royal Aircraft Factory A.E.3

There were a bewildering number of aircraft manufacturers in Britain during World War I but the Royal Aircraft Factory based at Farnborough was perhaps the most important. The Royal Aircraft Factory was barely two years old when war broke it in 1914, it was previously known as the Army Balloon Factory, but already was looking at using aircraft to wage war. Despite the fact that aircraft such as the factory’s own B.E.2 could barely lift a pilot and observer off the ground the factory’s designers had begun looking in to arming aircraft and in 1913 produced the A.E.1 (Armed Experimental 1).

The A.E.1 (later known as the F.E.3) was a pusher-biplane powered by a 100hp Chenu eight-cylinder liquid-cooled inline engine with a crew of two. The aircraft was armed with a Coventry Ordnance Works one pounder (37mm) in the forward fuselage for use against ground targets. However the airframe was found to be too fragile in the tail while its performance was less than stellar and with a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) still being led by generals who had never even flown in an aircraft it was seen as a step too far and the project was cancelled. As the war pressed on an “A.E.2” was conceived in 1917 with tractor engines but this never saw the light of day.

For the very concept of fighting a war in the air the First World War was perhaps the greatest laboratory the aircraft designers of the day could have hoped for. Theories flooded the aviation scene on how to design and build aircraft that would either give the advantage in the air over an opponent’s aircraft or have an impact on the battlefield itself. There was almost a callous attitude taken to the reports of men losing their lives in their machines not from enemy contact but from mistakes made on the drawing board, a situation exacerbated by an unclear view on how to conduct the war in the air by the RFC leadership who sometimes issued contradictory requirements to manufacturers.

A number of terms for aircraft types came and went and in 1917 the RFC issued a requirement for a “contact patrol” aircraft. What this term envisioned was an aircraft that would operate with the infantry by providing reconnaissance, communications and light attack duties. This required the aircraft to fly low where it would be exposed to enemy small arms fire necessitating a certain degree of armour protection for the pilot and observer. It would also have to be rugged for landing on rough strips and have good forward armament for attacking enemy positions.

Royal Aircraft Factory N.E.1At around the same time the Royal Aircraft Factory had pinned its hopes on its N.E.1 (left) winning a contract with the RFC to provide them with a night fighter to combat nocturnal raids by Zeppelins. A pusher-biplane design the aircraft failed to meet the RFC’s exacting requirements but when the RFC issued it’s requirement for a contact patrol aircraft the Royal Aircraft Factory decided to save development time by adapting the N.E.1. There was a certain logic to choosing the N.E.1 to base the new aircraft on and not just to speed up development. The pusher configuration kept the aircraft’s engine away from the defensive ground fire during an attack on a target and it also meant that the nose could accommodate more weapons and ammunition.

The new aircraft received the Royal Aircraft Factory designation A.E.1 with the “A” this time standing for “armoured”. An equal span biplane, the pilot and observer were housed in an armoured nacelle protruding forwards along with the aircraft’s main armament comprising two Lewis .303 (7.7mm) drum fed machine guns. The two machine guns were not fixed although they did possess only limited depression and azimuth meaning the pilot would still have to do most of the aiming by pointing the aircraft at the target. The observer, who occupied the front position, also had a third Lewis machine gun mounted on a pillar between his and the pilot’s position for self-defence against enemy fighter attack and had stowage for up to 32 ammunition drums amounting to 3,207 rounds.

To power the aircraft the designers turned to the tried and tested Hispano-Suiza 8b inline engine that was also being fitted to the factory’s S.E.5a fighter and it would be for that very reason that the project ran in to its biggest obstacle. Reliable aero-engines during World War I were exceptionally hard to come by and the Hispano-Suiza 8b was one of the most sought after. Despite the fact that twenty one factories were building versions of it in five countries demand still outsripped supply by a considerable margin with the Royal Aircraft Factory itself having around 400 S.E.5a airframes sat around waiting for their engines in early 1918. Therefore the designers turned to alternative powerplants to get the prototypes in to the air.

The first prototype, B8781, was therefore completed with a Sunbeam Arab engine. This was similar to the Hispano-Suiza in that it was an inline V8 design that churned out 212hp and this allowed the aircraft to take flight Royal Aircraft Factory A.E.3. ii jpgfrom Farnborough for the first time in April 1918. Initially the radiator for the engine was installed between the rear centre-section fuselage struts but was soon relocated above the centre-section alongside the fuel tank positioned over the wing. The Arab was never seen as an ideal engine for the project and so the decision was taken to redesign the second prototype, B8783, with a Bentley BR.2 rotary engine. This produced 230hp and went some way to compensating for the weight of the aircraft. The BR.2 powered second prototype first flew in June 1918 and became known in-house as the A.E.2 while the term A.E.3 became a blanket term for the project as well as covering the third prototype, B8782, which returned to the Arab engine but included some design alterations.

By this time there had been a number of changes in Britain’s military aviation scene that would affect the project in both minor and major ways. The biggest change was the dissolution of the aircraft’s initial customer, the Royal Flying Corps, it having been merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to create Britain’s and indeed the world’s first independent air arm the Royal Air Force in April 1918. This went a long way to free military flying from Army and Navy thinking (in theory) that many believed had held back Britain’s military prospects in the air but in doing so brought in to question concepts such as the “contact patrol” aircraft.

The formation of the RAF had the effect on the Royal Aircraft Factory that it needed a new name since the abbreviation “RAF” had previously covered their operation. This led to the Royal Aircraft Establishment and was quickly followed by a new policy of naming aircraft rather than just being given designations. The A.E.3 project therefore acquired the name Ram possibly in reference to its forward armament resembling horns to some. The Arab powered aircraft became known as Ram I while the single Bentley powered aircraft became the Ram II.

As the wheels of the Great British bureaucracy turned, testing of the aircraft continued. It was found quite quickly that the aircraft was borderline uncontrollable with the control surfaces barely up to the job which made handling the aircraft a laborious and dangerous affair at low level. It was clear to all that given the aircraft’s role this was wholly unacceptable and the Bentley powered aircraft was taken back in to the factory to have increased span ailerons and rudders to compensate. This did help alleviate the problem somewhat but the aircraft remained a handful to fly. As the Royal Air Force ordered field trials of the Bentley powered aircraft the designers at Farnborough quickly worked on a redesigned aircraft known as the Ram III to address these issues further.

On June 30th the Bentley powered B8783 touched down in France and was given to the men of Nos.201 and 209 squadrons for field testing. Both squadrons were an unusual choice for the trials since at the time they were flying Sopwith Camel fighters (No.209 Squadron included Canadian ace Captain Roy Brown who was controversially credited with shooting down the Red Baron, Manfred von Richtofen) although they had adopted a ground strafing role in support of the infantry. However, this fact might go some way to explaining the rather appalling results the pilots who flew it reported back. As had been revealed at Farnborough the aircraft’s low handling performance was woefully unimpressive and this was most likely exacerbated by the fact that the trials pilots had come from one of the Great War’s most agile fighter aircraft. Following a demonstration to Major General John Salmond who commanded RAF units in France he determined that the lumbering aircraft had no tactical use to his men and sent a damning letter to the Air Ministry voicing his opinion. The Air Ministry concurred with Salmond and all work on the project ceased with the Ram III never being built.

The story of the “Farnborough Ram” is one of a number of aircraft that was designed at a time when the research in to aerial warfare was still rather infantile and confused despite the advances made as a result of actual combat.

Specifications (Ram II)

  • Role: Ground attack and reconnaissance
  • Crew: 2 (pilot and observer)
  • Powerplant: Bentley BR.2 rotary engine (230hp)
  • Maximum speed: 95mph
  • Wingspan: 47ft 10in
  • Length: 27ft 9in
  • Height: 10ft 0in
  • Chord: 6ft 0in
  • Wing area: 560sq ft
  • Dihedral:
  • Armament:
    2x forward firing .303 Lewis machine guns
    1x pillar mounted .303 Lewis machine gun for self defence