Aircraft Gallery: Belize Harriers

In 1975 Guatemala was in the grip of a bloody civil war and for the British garrison in neighbouring Belize there was a genuine fear that at the least the conflict would spill over the border and at worst a full scale invasion by Guatemalan forces would take place. To bolster the resident British Army garrison, a detachment of six Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR.1As from No. 1 Squadron RAF was deployed to Ladyville International Airport in November 1975 as a flag-waving gesture to discourage Guatemalan forces. They returned to the UK a few months later when the threat appeared to have subsided but in June 1977 the Harriers were back, now in their upgraded GR.3 form, and this time they would stay until 1993 by which time the GR.3s had given way to the second generation GR.7.

The aircraft operated under the guise of 1417 Flight with aircraft and crews rotated from frontline Harrier squadrons usually based in the UK and Germany. It was a popular posting with pilots due to the lack of restrictions and that it counted as a combat deployment which improved promotion prospects. Although combat with the Guatemalan Army never erupted the situation was extremely volatile and the flying was intense. There were several accidents over the years including one aircraft being brought down from crashing in to a Vulture! The Harriers did however show Britain’s determination to defend Belize and so achieved their goal.

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NEWS: Argentine Gripen Acquisition A Threat To The Falklands?

Argentina plans to buy up to 24 JAS.39 Gripens (left) to challenge the dominace of the RAF's Typhoon

Argentina plans to buy up to 24 JAS.39 Gripens (left) to challenge the dominance of the RAF’s Typhoon (right)

On 21st October during a visit to Brazil, Argentina’s defence minister Agustin Rossi announced plans to purchase up to 24 examples of the highly capable SAAB JAS.39 Gripen multi role fighter in what is the biggest aircraft acquisition the country has undertaken since the end of its military dictatorship. Going beyond a simple defence acquisition, Rossi explained that Argentina and Brazil planned to eventually open up a local production line most likely in Brazil to support the aircraft and build license examples of the type for export to Uruguay and Ecuador among other potential customers in the region. With the current higher than normal tensions between London and Buenos Aires one can’t help but wonder what this could potentially mean for the contingent of British forces guarding the Falkland Islands.

RAF Typhoon FGR.4s of No.1435 Flight

RAF Typhoon FGR.4s of No.1435 Flight

Since the islands were repatriated following Argentina’s failed military invasion in 1982 under the leadership of Leopoldo Galtieri the British armed forces have maintained a permanent military presence on the island in what has often been dubbed as “Fortress Falklands”. Key to these defences has been the RAF’s No.1435 Flight that have provided the main air defence shield around the archipelago. In the immediate post war period RAF Harriers operated out of Port Stanley airfield supported by Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS.1s (a fighter that proved vastly superior to anything in the Argentine air force during the conflict) operating off HMS Ark Royal at sea. A flight of Phantom FGR.2s under the guise of No.1435 Flight then operated off the islands initially at Port Stanley airport and then at the newly opened RAF Mount Pleasant. The Phantoms were replaced by Tornado F.3s in 1992 and these were in turn replaced by Typhoon FGR.4s in 2009. The exact number of aircraft No.1435 Flight operated was initially a secret but was then revealed to only be four aircraft. These were backed up by ground based defences of the RAF Regiment. While numbers weren’t on their side the RAF always had quality in buckets. The Argentines have had nothing that could come close to comparing to the Phantom, Tornado or Typhoon in over 30 years and some of their current fleet of fast jets are nearly identical to those that flew in 1982!

So will a Gripen buy dilute this balance; perhaps even tip it in the Argentines favour?

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Argentina’s Air Force still operates the same aircraft it flew in 1982

The short answer is yes it does. The JAS.39C Gripen is really up there with some of the premier fighters in the world. It is highly manoeuvrable and can carry a good payload of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. It is not just a weapon in its own right but part of a much larger weapon system that its home country Sweden exploits fully. The type is truly netcentric meaning it can distribute and share vast amounts of data with other assets to help build a complete picture of the battlefield; something not even the prized USAF F-22 Raptor can achieve. The Fuerza Aerea Argentina (Argentinean Air Force) needs this fighter desperately. While it has undertaken some very limited modernization programs over the past 30 years such as the A-AR Fightinghawk the bulk of its aircraft are getting extremely tired and old. Where once the air arm was one of the top dogs in Latin America now it is merely a shadow of its former self. The trouble has been that since democracy came to Argentina politicians have been afraid of military programs for fear of angering the people many of whom still resent the military and for fear of a strong military seizing power yet again. Clearly this policy is now being reversed or is at the very least addressed.

Just how capable would Argentine Gripens really be?

Just how capable would Argentine Gripens really be?

So if the short answer is bad news for the RAF on the Falklands then what of the long answer? This is where things swing back to the RAF. Firstly the real question is how much capability would an Argentine Gripen be bestowed upon. At present there are several versions of the aircraft each with varying degrees of performance that are tailored to the user’s specific needs. It is not simply a case of the Argentineans buying 24 Gripens and then challenging the RAF over the Falklands. They will also have to acquire the weapons and support infrastructure to go along with them. The RAF Typhoon FGR.4s are armed with AIM-120D AMRAAM medium range missiles and AIM-132 ASRAAM high agility dogfight missiles. The Argentineans will need to match these weapons with equally costly types if they want to seriously challenge the RAF. Typhoons of the Spanish Air Force operating with similar weapons frequently descimated USAF F-15C Eagles that were armed with the previous generation AIM-9M Sidewinder in simulated dogfights so not just any weapon will do. If the Argentineans wanted to take full advantage of the type’s netcentric warfare ability in any conflict over the Falklands then this would require the purchase of at least two Erieye Airborne Warning and Surveillance (AWACS) aircraft also but so far there are no plans to do so. As good an aircraft the Gripen is it does have one real problem from an Argentine stand point and that is its short range. This was the curse of the Argentine Air Force and Navy pilots in 1982 who often had just a few minutes to find and bomb a target before turning for home for lack of fuel. Tankers can alleviate this problem to an extent but unlike in 1982 when the few Argentine tankers operated out of the range of the Sea Harrier any future sconflict would see Typhoons sent to intercept them as priority targets. Another possibility is that Storm Shadow missiles could even be employed to shut down their bases keeping the tanker and the Gripen itself on the ground.

This whole discussion could remain purely academic however. One rather large grey cloud hanging over the whole affair is whether Argentina can afford them at all despite the announcement. Argentina’s economy is hanging on by a thread in 2014 and there shows little sign of that changing anytime soon. The real question is how much Brazil will put in to the project on Argentina’s behalf. As I explained the Gripen needs a large support infrastructure to truly be a threat and while it is possible that an aircraft acquisition will take place it is highly unlikely that they will be top of the line models at least not for some time.

Aircraft Gallery – Lancaster Nose Art

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To the thousands of young men who climbed in to the narrow fuselage of Avro’s Lancaster bomber the aircraft was more than just a means to attack Germany. It was every bit a part of the crew and the aircraft in turn reflected that crew. Therefore personalizing the aircraft became a morale booster and helped fuse the crew together and the best way to personalize an aircraft was with nose art.

Here are a few examples of Lancaster nose art showing that the RAF were just as creative (and sometime gratuitous) as their USAAF comrades in their B-17s and B-24s.

Last Formation Flight of Vulcan & Victor

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This is thought to be the last ever Vulcan-Victor formation. The picture was taken by Neil Cottle from an RAF Hercules in 1991. “I do clearly recall walking down the back and seeing XH558’s refuelling probe almost in our freight bay!” says Neil, who was the Hercules co-pilot. Even then, XH558 had been the last flying Vulcan for five years.

(Courtesy of Vulcan XH558’s Facebook page)

Mosquito LR503 – A Unique Record

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De Havilland Mosquito ‘LR503’ was one of only 54 B.IX models of the famous “wooden wonder” and holds a unique place in the annals of aviation in that it flew more combat missions than any other allied aircraft during World War II. In total the aircraft flew 213 operations against German forces in Europe.

Mosquito ‘LR503’ was built at the De Havilland plant at Hatfield, England in early 1943 before being delivered to No.109 Squadron at Wyton, Huntingdonshire.  No.109 Squadron was one of the original Pathfinder Force which made history flying the first radar blind bombing system known as “Oboe” on the night of the 20th and 21st December 1942. Upon joining the squadron ‘LR503’ received the unit code letters HS-C.

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The aircraft began it’s epic combat flying career on 28th May 1943 by marking targets in the city of Krefeld along the Ruhr for a force of heavy bombers. Ten months after delivery to No.109 Squadron the aircraft was transferred to No.105 Squadron at RAF Bourn and on June 3rd 1944 the aircraft flew its 100th mission. Just three days later, on D-Day, the aircraft was especially busy flying two missions in direct support of the landings. It was with No.105 Squadron that the aircraft received it’s ‘F’ identification code and from then on was always known as ‘F-for-Freddie’.

The last year of the war was especially busy for ‘F-for-Freddie’ with the aircraft averaging at least one mission every three days. ‘LR503’ flew its last combat operation on April 10, 1945 with the target being the Wehren marshalling yards in Leipzig. Less than a month later the war in Europe was over. Unfortunately, just two days after VE Day, the aircraft crashed while on a goodwill tour in Canada killing it’s crew;  F/Lt. J. Maurice W. Briggs, DFM, DFC, and DSO and F/O John C. Baker, DFC and Bar.


SPECIAL THANKS
Thanks to Aviation Trails for bringing this story to my attention. Anyone interested in visiting Britain’s historical airfields should take a look at the site. 

Blackburn Buccaneer S.1

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SPECIFICATIONS

Role: Two seat low level strike aircraft

Manufacturers: Blackburn Aircraft Ltd, Brough and Holme on Spalding Moor

Power Plant: 2x Gyron Junior 101 turbojets (7,100lbs thrust)

Wingspan: 44ft (20ft folded)

Length: 63ft 5ins (51ft 10in folded)

Height: 16ft 3ins

Weight: 45,000lbs (loaded)

Max Speed: 720mph

Range: 500-600 miles

Armament: 8,000lbs (4,000lbs internally/4,000lbs on external pylons)

The Blackburn Buccaneer entered Royal Navy service in 1962 with No.801 NAS and began replacing the Supermarine Scimitar in the strike role. Initially limited to the conventional attack role, from 1965 the aircraft became cleared for the tactical nuclear strike mission carrying Red Beard and WE.177 free-fall nuclear bombs. These weapons were carried internally in the Buccaneer’s small bomb bay. For this role the Buccaneers adopted an all over anti-flash white paint scheme similar to the RAF’s V-Bomber Force. A total of two RN squadrons were equipped with the Buccaneer S.1 as well as a single shore based training unit. More had originally been planned but the drawdown of the carrier force curtailed a large scale acquisition.

Although liked by its pilots the S.1 was not without its problems. The Gyron Junior engines were notoriously underpowered given the weight of the aircraft and the demands of a carrier launch. In some circumstances, such as having a heavy bombload, it lead to the aircraft taking off the deck with half a fuel load and then being immediately having to be refuelled in the air by a Scimitar, Sea Vixen or RAF tanker. This drawback lead to a need to re-engine the aircraft. The new engine was the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan which was already fitted to the RN’s Phantom FG.1. This necessitated enlarging the intakes and this became a recognition feature for distinguishing between the S.1 and the Spey powered S.2.

The Buccaneer S.1 was replaced entirely by 1970 with the Spey powered S.2 version. A single example can be viewed at the Carrier Experience Exhibit at the Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum.

English Electric Lightning F.6 vs. MiG-21F-13 “Fishbed-C”

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The English Electric Lightning is for many the epitome of all-British fighter design. It was indeed one of the last of it’s kind and only barely survived the now notorious 1956 White Paper that effectively killed off manned fighter development in the UK. On the other side of the Iron Curtain a similar aircraft was taking shape in the form of the equally famous MiG-21F-13. This relatively simple aircraft was rubbished by many Western observers who felt that missile technology would negate the impact of the MiG-21. As history would show over Vietnam however this was a grave underestimate and the USAF and US Navy paid dearly for it.

Although the Lightning and MiG-21 never met in combat it would certainly be an interesting comparison. PLEASE NOTE; for this comparison I am only looking at the Lightning F.6 and MiG-21F-13 “Fishbed-C” versions of these aircraft as these were operational at around the same time in the early 1960s.


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Both aircraft had very similar roles in that they were designed as classic Cold War interceptors; i.e their mission was to get off the ground as quickly as possible and intercept an approaching enemy bomber force. In wartime they would use their weapon system and air-to-air missiles to shoot down these bombers before they could have a chance to launch their nuclear weapons.

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In the UK and across the Iron Curtain these aircraft would form part of an intricate air defence system for their respective nations that would include surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other aircraft. Neither of these aircraft were intended to be true dogfighters like the fighters of old since there was the belief that missile technology would nullify this aspect of air warfare. The Lightning and the MiG-21 had a secondary light attack role using rockets and unguided bombs and it was in this role that the Lightning saw it’s only actual combat with the Royal Saudi Air Force.

PERFORMANCE

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The Lightning F.6 was powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon 301R turbojets each producing 16,000lbs of thrust with full afterburner. With its low weight and aerodynamically efficient design the Lightning was able reach Mach.2 with ease and could achieve an incredible rate of climb – 50,000ft/min. The Lightning F.6 had a service ceiling of some 56,000ft but if enough thrust was achieved in the climb this could be extended higher for brief periods. Rumours persist of Lightnings buzzing U-2 spyplanes at nearly 70,000ft whilst performing these “zoom” climbs. Range was always the Achilles Heel of the Lightning however and without ferry tanks or refuelling had an absolute range of around 900 miles which translates in to a combat radius of just 180 miles from base.

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The MiG-21F-13 was powered by a single Tumansky R-11F-300 turbojet engine that developed 12,655lbs of thrust that took the MiG-21F-13 to a speed just in excess of Mach.2. The much lighter MiG-21F-13 had a climb rate in excess of 40,000ft a minute and had a service ceiling of 62,000ft. Like the Lightning the MiG-21F-13 was hardly blessed with long legs and had an absolute range of 1,030 miles while typical combat radius was around the same figure.

WEAPON SYSTEM

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The Lightning were equipped with the Ferranti-developed monopulse AI.223 radar located in a conical bullet shaped radome at the centre of the engine intake. Radar information was displayed on an early heads-up display and the radar featured several operational modes which included autonomous search, automatic target tracking, and ranging for all weapons; the pilot attack sight provided gyroscopically-derived lead angle and backup stadiametric ranging for gun firing. The radar and gunsight were collectively designated the AIRPASS: Airborne Interception Radar and Pilot Attack Sight System. The system did have a narrow detection arc however of just 40 degrees.

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The MiG-21F-13 was less of a complete weapon system. It was optimized for daylight operations only and in a strict Ground Control Interception (GCI) environment. This reflected the Soviet doctrine of almost total inflexibility toward how their pilots dealt with a threat. The aircraft was fitted with a very primitive and minuscule ranging radar designed to aid with targeting enemy aircraft in the final stages of the interception. Other than that the only other weapon systems were a primitive gunsight and the pilot’s own eyes.

WEAPONS

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The Lightning F.6 was primarily armed with a pair of Red Top air-to-air missiles. The early Lightnings were armed with Firestreak missiles and these remained nominally in service until the Lightning was withdrawn from use. The Red Top was a rather large infra-red guided missile compared to the US AIM-9B Sidewinder but was arguably more capable having a more advanced seeker head. Unfortunately it suffered from the same problems most infra-red air-to-air missiles suffered from in the 1960s and that was poor reliability in its electronics (for more on Red Top click here). To back these up were two of the proven 30mm ADEN cannons which could also be used for straffing ground targets. In RAF service the full potential of the Lightning’s carrying capability was never reached but for the export market versions were offered with mulitple launch rails and rocket/fuel tank combinations increasing range and weaponry .

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Primary armament for the MiG-21F-13 was the K-13 infra red guided air-to-air missile. Known in the West as the AA-2 “Atoll”, if you think this weapon has a striking similarity to the US AIM-9B Sidewinder you would be right. The weapon was a direct copy of the US weapon following the failure of the Soviets to develop an equivalent missile. It was thanks to a Taiwanese F-86 Sabre firing an AIM-9B at a Chinese MiG-17 that the Communists were able to get hold of one. The missile struck the MiG’s wing but failed to detonate and became lodged inside it. The pilot flew back to his base with the missile sticking out and relatively intact. Like Red Top and Firestreak the AA-2 suffered from poor reliability and liked to chase the sun rather than an enemy plane. Most of the kills accredited to the MiG-21F-13 in Vietnam was actually a result of the aircraft’s NR-30 30mm cannon. The aircraft could also carry a variety of unguided bombs and rockets on its three pylons.

CONCLUSION

The Lightning was an aircraft designed primarily for one role and that was short ranged high speed attacks on incoming bomber formations. The MiG-21F-13 carried out the same role but was a more rounded combat aircraft in that it could more easily adopt other roles. In a dogfight neither of these aircraft had particularly good weapons aside from their guns and while the MiG-21F-13 did have a higher degree of agility the Lightning pilot was afforded a far superior weapon system meaning he could detect the MiG-21F-13 much sooner giving him greater scope with which to attack; he could decide to flee in face of superior numbers or alter his attack approach in order to ambush a MiG-21F-13 whose pilot still largely relied on the old “Mark One Eyeball” sensor. As Manfred “Red Baron Von Richtofen often said; the majority of his victims never saw him coming.