(Update at the bottom of this post.)
So the selection announcement for the long
running, never dull KC-X tanker competition may come as soon as Thursday. As I write this, media reports
indicate that the odds would appear to favor the EADS bid of an A330-based KC-45 tanker over Boeing’s KC-767 bid.
Putting the capabilities and cost per airframe for each
tanker aside for a moment, and the fact that likely protests will make this
competition far from over, I have been wondering about the merits of both bids
to the US aerospace industry. Of course industrial considerations are not part
of the selection process in this program, but there will obviously be
ramifications on the US aerospace industrial base depending on the choice.
Both EADS and Boeing have pumped a lot of money into
lobbying and advertising about the benefits on domestic job creation and
sustainment here in the US, and that is certainly a hot political topic this
day and age. Both companies claim that their winning bid would generate around
50,000 jobs, but depending on who wins, those jobs would be in very different
locations of the country: Boeing’s work will be at existing industrial bases in
Seattle, WA and Wichita, KS; EADS would build its tankers at a new site in
Mobile, AL. This will only add to the political wrangling when congress
inevitably weighs in.
So if we take both claims at face value, then the America
will have 50,000 extra jobs in the near term that it otherwise would not have
had. It’s a win-win either way for the American worker really – in the near
term at least, but what about the longer term?
The Boeing tanker has often been pitched as the All American
bid. It stands to reason that if Boeing, the paramount US airframer, did win
the bid then that would be a boon for the US industry, but would it? As I see
it, the Boeing bid would keep the 767 production line running for a few more
years, producing another 179 aircraft. However, the 767 is in effect commercially
dead, and has only been given a stay of execution by the delays in the 787
program. When the 179 tankers are built, then what happens? The 787 will have
already ramped up, and those KC-767 jobs may well just disappear again – many actual
workers may get absorbed into other Boeing programs, but the “jobs” will be
lost again. They are only temporary with no real long term potential. Bringing
the KC-X to Seattle won’t add anything much long term; it really just delays
the inevitable closure of the commercial 767 line.
An EADS win would create an entirely new aerospace industrial
base in southern Alabama. That is a big investment which EADS and Airbus are
unlikely to walk away from after the 179th tanker rolls off the
line. Airbus has long sought to increase its Dollar-zone supplier base, and
having its own manufacturing base in the US would be the icing on the cake.
During the previous bid, Airbus stated that it would move commercial A330F
production to the mobile site if it got the KC-45 order. If Airbus decides to
proceed with that original plan after a successful win on this bid, it would be
a significant boost to the long-term security of the site and its work force.
The Alabama site also gives Airbus the opportunity to move additional final or
component assembly work to the US on future programs if exchange rates again
make the Euro-zone costly. This would mean a longer term sustainment for the
Mobile site as a major EADS/Airbus industrial center.
My point is that although both tanker programs could employ
50,000 Americans in the near term, the KC-X doesn’t offering any new
manufacturing opportunities for Boeing which it can grow into longer-term jobs.
Boeing will choose to build or not to build its various commercial aircraft in
Seattle regardless of a tanker win or loss. Continuing 767 production for
another 179 airframes will not in itself generate a lot of long term industrial
capacity and job sustainment at Boeing. For EADS, it does; a win would mean
creating (aerospace) jobs where there were no jobs before. EADS would likely
choose to build additional aircraft or major components in Alabama and that
would be as a direct result of a KC-X win; otherwise those jobs would stay in
Europe, or go to China or elsewhere. I would therefore bet that in 10 or 20
years time, there will be a larger US industrial base in aerospace as the
result of an EADS victory over a Boeing victory in this competition.
If the KC-X contract ever get successfully awarded that
is. We’ll see.
Well, I guess you just can't trust media speculation these days :)
The KC-767 proposal (to become the KC-46) was "the clear winner" according to the Air Force today. As predicted, both proposals met all capability requirements, and it essentially came down to a simple price shootout. Boeing's victory today will dash any near-term hopes for an Airbus assembly line States-side. EADS is sensibly keeping quiet for now on what it will do next. Despite a few human errors, this selection process has been touted as much more robust than the previous one in 2008, when Boeing successfully protested the same KC-X award for the Northrop Grumman/EADS KC-45. Boeing had reasonable grounds for its protest back then, but EADS will have to tread carefully now. Any possible protest to the GAO will need to have a solid foundation. They don't want to annoy what is a still future potential customer: the USAF confirmed today that it still intends to proceed with the follow-on KC-Y and KC-Z tanker competitions. The later competitions will in part replace the air force's fleet of larger KC-10 tankers, which the A330-based KC-45 has often been seen as a more suitable replacement. EADS may be better to concede and prepare for the next battle.
Welcome to my fourth and final post on the Ark Royal aircraft carriers of the 20th Century. On 24 January this year, a parade was held in honor of the retirement of the present Invincible class HMS Ark Royal. A victim of last year’s SDSR, Ark Royal and her Harrier air wing have been retired from service early, in part to save funds to secure her replacement, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers. Just as her previous name sakes, this Ark Royal has had a dynamic career which saw her role and capabilities adapted several times: command cruiser, ASW carrier, strike carrier, LPH assault ship, and she served as flagship of the fleet.
Invincible Class Light Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal (R07)
Planning for what would become the Invincible-class carrier began in 1966 following the cancellation of the CVA-01 programme, though the some of the requirements can be traced back further than that for an escort helicopter ship. The initial studies recommended a hybrid commando/escort cruiser which could embark a Marine Commando landing force, have a dedicated ASW helicopter force, would be armed with long-range air defence missiles, and have extensive command and control capabilities for a larger task force. Consideration was also given to the possibility of a STOVL (or VSTOL as the concept was then referred to) fighter force for wider area air defence as well as attack and recce missions in support of a Marine landing.
The proposed design was deemed too ambitious however, requiring a ship well in excess of 20,000 tons, and a planning was refocused on a smaller ship which would forgo the Marine Commando capabilities and concentrate on ASW helicopters and command and control, with the expectation of replacing the ageing Tiger class helicopter cruisers.
By January of 1968, three proposals were offered for consideration, with the largest ship design of around 18,000 tons being selected to proceed. The ship, termed a command cruiser, would have a through-deck for helicopter operations, an internal hangar below the flight deck, a Sea Dart air defence missile system, and would be powered purely by gas turbines – the largest ships to be equipped as such.
Meanwhile, the concept of operating STOVL fighters kept cropping up as the Hawker Kestrel/Harrier programme for the RAF progressed through the late 1960’s. Provisions for operating such aircraft alongside the helicopter force were maintained in the design work. The most prominent example of accommodating STOVL fighters was the late addition of a ski-jump to bow.
The ski-jump was developed for the Navy by Lt Cdr D R Taylor, and allowed a reduced deck run by a Harrier during take-off, allowing greater deck flexibility and greater take-off loads. The ship design was modified with a ski-jump, but this happened after HMS Invincible had already been ordered in 1972. The modifications had to be negotiated under a separate contract with the builders. Looking back over the history of the Invincible class, the insistence on maintaining the STOVL capabilities of the ships’ design was proved very wise and far-sighted; imagine if the Royal Navy had only helicopter carriers for the past quarter century. The formal government go-ahead to allow the Navy to procure the navalised Sea Harriers was not taken until 1975, when 34 FRS.1 models were ordered.
Sea Harrier FRS.1s taking-off from Ark Royal (Royal Navy)
HMS Invincible was commissioned in 1980, and served with distinction in the 1982 Falklands War. HMS Illustrious was commissioned in 1982; she had been rushed into service ahead of schedule due to the Falklands War, and was actually commissioned at sea on her way to the South Atlantic to relieve Invincible shortly after the ceasefire was declared.
The third ship of the class was originally to be named Indomitable. The public outcry following the scrapping of the previous Ark Royal however prompted the Navy to rename the third ship Ark Royal in honor of the previous carrier. She was launched at the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in June 1981 and commissioned into service in July 1985. As the last of the class to be built, Ark Royal would benefit from some of the experiences of her sister ships. She entered service fitted with Phalanx CIWS guns for missile defence, and was built with a steeper 12 degree ski-jump.
Like her sister ships, the Ark Royal was originally tasked as an ASW carrier, operating an air wing of Sea King helicopters and Sea Harriers to protect the North Atlantic sea lanes from the Soviet Navy. Following the end of the Cold War, the Sea Harriers, which performed so well in the South Atlantic the previous decade, continued to prove their worth. The swing-role capabilities of the Sea Harrier allowed the Invincible class ships to transition from sea control duties to expeditionary warfare which the Royal Navy was becoming increasingly tasked.
Ark Royal deployed to the Mediterranean during the 1991 Gulf War in case the conflict expanded and as a guard against possible intervention by Libya, who had proclaimed early support for Iraq’s actions; in the end, she was not involved in any combat operations. In the spring of 1993, the carrier went to the Adriatic in to support the NATO air patrols during the Bosnian War. During this deployment, one of her 801NAS Sea Harriers was actually shot down by a SAM during an attack run on Serbian tanks. The pilot, Lt Nick Richardson, was later recued and went on to write a book about his experiences of that deployment, No Escape Zone.
In 1999, the Ark Royal entered a two-year refit. As with her sister ships, the Sea Dart missile system was removed from the bow in order to free up extra flight deck and magazine space to allow Ark Royal to embark a larger air wing of both Navy Sea Harrier FA2s and RAF Harrier GR7s. This greatly enhanced the offensive air capability of the ship in the expeditionary strike carrier role.
A Harrier taking-off from Ark Royal's ski-jump, while the ship refuels from the fleet tanker RFA Wave Knight (Royal Navy)
In 2002, Ark Royal sailed to Malta’s Grand Harbour in honor of the 60th anniversary of Operation Pedestal, a major British effort to resupply the besieged island in 1942. It was the famous World War II Ark Royal which supported earlier convoy attempts to Malta from her base in Gibraltar, until she was finally sunk by a U-boat in November 1941.
Ark Royal would earn her first battle honors since that World War II ship in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Despite the increased Harrier capability following her refit, Ark Royal would go to war not in her primary strike role, but in her secondary LPH role. As part of the British contribution to the invasion, HMS Ocean and Ark Royal sailed to the Persian Gulf to support the Marine assault of the Al-Faw Peninsula. Ark Royal was loaded with RN and RAF helicopters, displacing the normal Harriers, and served as the flagship of the British task force during that conflict.
Ark Royal again took on the role of a helicopter assault ship from late 2006 until 2008, standing in as the fleet’s LPH while Ocean was in refit, resuming Harrier GR9 operations when that ship returned to service. By this time, the dedicated Sea Harrier FA2 had been withdrawn from service and 800 and 801 NAS were reformed with former RAF Harriers. The Government had determined that upgrading the Sea Harrier FA2 would be too costly, and the GR9 offered greater payload capabilities.
The Ark celebrated its Silver Jubilee of service in July 2010. She was supposed to continue in service with her Harriers until 2016, when she would be replaced by the new HMS Queen Elizabeth. The October 2010 SDSR brought her retirement swiftly forward however, and her last cruise concluded in early December, including the last departure of a Harrier from a Royal Navy carrier on 24 November.
Ark Royal celebrating her 25th anniversary in 2010 (Royal Navy)
Ark Royal now awaits her fate. The MoD has stated that all options are being considered. Besides simply scrapping the ship, reported proposals have included everything from selling the ship to another country to turning it into a hotel or casino. Efforts to have Ark Royal turned into a museum ship have also been floated, though any alternative to scrapping seems unlikely. Shortly after the announcement that Ark Royal would be retired early, a campaign began to have the Royal Navy rename one of the future two Queen Elizabeth class carriers as Ark Royal in order to allow the name to carry on into the 21st Century.
Like her previous namesake, the decommissioning of the Ark Royal has signaled an end of an era for Royal Naval aviation. The four Ark Royal carriers have served Britain over a span of 96 years. They were home-at-sea to men and machines from the Royal Naval Air Service, the Royal Air Force, and the Fleet Air Arm, flying eveything from seaplanes to supersonic fighters to jump-jets. The name Ark Royal has risen to become the most famous name in the Royal Navy since the Victory, and has become near-synonymous with Royal Naval aviation. Whatever happens to the current ship, and to the name, there is no doubt that the legacy of the Ark carriers will continue long into the future as a symbol of power, prestige and pride.
The following is the third installment of my look back at the four British aircraft carriers which have carried the name Ark Royal. Although conceived during World War II, the carrier was completed and served out her 24-year career during the decline of the British Empire and the rise of the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. When first commissioned, she was one of several British aircraft carriers serving throughout the world; when she was finally paid-off, the Ark Royal was the last remaining fleet carrier of the Royal Navy.
I’m conscious of the fact that this Ark Royal is much closer to living memory of most people than the previous ships. This had made some information easier to come by, but will no doubt make any mistakes all the more obvious to more readers, so as before, any corrections or additions are much appreciated.
Part 3 – The Audacious-class Fleet Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal (Pennant Number R09)
Less than a year after Ark Royal (91) was sunk in the Mediterranean in November 1941, a new aircraft carrier that was to become the third HMS Ark Royal of the modern era was ordered. This ship, originally to be named Irresistible, was authorized back in 1940 and initially planned as an improved Implacable-class. Wartime experience however was pointing towards the need for a much larger carrier than the Implacables, and the decision to design an entirely new class of ship was taken as a result of the 1942 authorization for three additional ships for what would be known as the Audacious-class fleet carriers: HMS Audacious, Ark Royal, Eagle and Africa.
With increased usage of American-built carrier planes, the adoption of the US standard 17.5 ft high hangar was essential; the Audacious-class ships would have two parking hangar levels (similar to the preceding Implacables), with a dedicated workshop area on the same level as the upper hangar. The original design estimates indicated that the ships would have a standard displacement of 31,600 tons – the largest carriers Britain had ever built. The new ships would have larger aircraft and bomb elevators than previous British carriers, as well as greater aviation fuel capacity, to facilitate the operation of larger planes. The theoretical aircraft capacity of the ships, depending on type and parking configurations, changed over the course of the war, ranging anywhere from 114 or more for the most optimistic estimates, to as few as 85 or even less with restricted deck parking.
The ships were not able to be completed before the end of the war however. For the first two ships, Audacious and Ark Royal, construction was suspended in October 1945, while the second two, Africa and Eagle, we outright cancelled and broken up on the slipway (the name Eagle was subsequently transferred to the Audacious).
The immediate post-war period was a time of great change for naval aviation. The aircraft carrier had provided an overwhelming contribution to the Pacific war and was heralded as the preeminent capital ship. However, jet-powered fighters were beginning to enter service on both sides of the Atlantic; the weight, size, and high launching and landing speeds of these new aircraft made jet carrier operations very difficult if not impossible from almost all of the existing allied carriers at that time.
The Royal Navy set up a committee to determine how to integrate jet aircraft into naval aviation, and how to modify aircraft to safely accommodate and operate those aircraft. One prominent figure in those committee meetings was Capt. Dennis R. F. Campbell, who is credited for coming up with one of the key solutions to the problem – the angled flight deck. This concept allowed landing aircraft which missed catching an arrestor wire to perform a go-around (or “bolter”) rather than slam into a crash barrier at high speed. Two other concepts developed for the needs of jet-powered aircraft were high pressure steam catapults to accelerate the planes quickly enough to get up to flying speed, and a mirror landing system which gave pilots direct visual feedback on their glide scope position rather than depending on the traditional landing officer or “batman” who would have a more difficult job calling down faster aircraft. Ark Royal would be the first carrier in the world to implement all three concepts (admittedly, the angled flight deck had a relatively modest 5.5 degree offset angle).
Ark Royal during speed trials prior to entering service. Though her deck lines are not yet marked, the port-side outward buldge in her flight deck shape to accomodate the angled configuration is evident (Flight, 11 February 1955).
Drawings from Flight magazine showing the interim angled flight deck layout of Ark Royal when first commissioned (Flight, 1 April 1955).
Other notable features of the Ark Royal included a deck-edge elevator on the starboard side, something that was unique to British carriers (though common on US carriers); widely spaced and separated machinery spaces to improve damage control in the event of an attack (partly from lessons learned from the loss of the previous Ark Royal); and the ability to control the ship’s engines remotely from a hermetically sealed control room in the event of a nearby atomic attack, allowing the ship to steam away from the contaminated area and continue operations.
So dramatic were the alterations to the design of the Ark Royal to accommodate the flight deck improvements that the Ark and her sister ship Eagle (which was commissioned with a traditional straight flight deck) were often considered as two separate and unique ship classes of their own. Her standard displacement had grown from the original 31,600 tons estimate to 36,800 tons. The changes, coupled with the temporary halt in construction in 1945, meant that Ark Royal had a very long build and fitting out. Though laid down in 1943 at Cammell Laird shipyard (where the previous Ark Royal was also built), she was not launched until 1950 and not commissioned until 1955. When she was ready however, she was a pioneer in many carrier technologies; her first commander was the very same Capt. Campbell who devised her most distinguishing feature. She was the most advanced aircraft carrier serving anywhere in the world at the time, though the US supercarrier era was just around the corner - the USS Forrestal, similarly equipped and twice the size, would be commissioned 9 months later.
Photos of Ark Royal in Flight magazine on the occassion of her commissioning in 1955 (Flight, 4 March 1955).
Despite her modifications and updates during construction and a 1960 refit, much of her equipment and machinery still dated from the early 1940’s. Consequently the ship quickly began to show her age during service and she gained a reputation for poor equipment reliability. It was estimated that she would not serve past 1972, and the Admiralty decided against giving her a second costly refit to extend her life beyond that.
However, the cancellation of Ark Royal’s replacement, CVA-01, in the 1966 Defence White Paper changed the situation. In order to maintain NATO carrier commitments in the Atlantic (when additional US carriers were required in the Pacific for Vietnam War service), the Ark underwent a “special refit and modernization” starting in 1967 that would last nearly three years. (Eagle was to receive a similar refit following Ark Royal’s return to service, but this too was cancelled.) The refit gave the carrier new electronics, higher power catapults with jet blast deflectors and deck cooling plates, and an increased 9 degree angled flight deck; her standard displacement grew to 43,060 tons.
The updated Ark Royal returned to service in 1970 and was at the peak of her capability. Her air wing would consist of Spey-powered Phantoms for air defence, Buccaneers S2s for attack and to counter Soviet surface ships, venerable Gannets for AEW and COD, and Sea King and Wessex helicopters for anti-submarine and SAR duties.
Aerial view of Ark Royal as she looked following her 1967-70 refit.
A Phantom at full power about to take-off from the bow catapult of Ark Royal.
The modified Phantoms stemmed from the cancellation of the Hawker P.1154, a supersonic VTOL fighter. The switch to the more powerful Rolls-Royce Spey engines was deemed necessary to allow the aircraft to operate from the small deck of the Ark Royal and Eagle (it also ensured that British industry got a share of the money), but the inlet and airframe modifications to accept the larger engines meant that aircraft costs ballooned, and the higher drag they created caused high end performance to be somewhat hampered. Nonetheless, successful flight trials on Eagle allowed the Phantoms to enter service in time for Ark Royal’s return from refit.
Ark Royal would soldier on as Britain’s last strike carrier through the 1970’s, her air wing arguably manned by the most experienced and skilled aircrews that the Fleet Air Arm ever put to see during the Cold War (since with the run-down of fast-jet operations to only a few squadrons, the Navy retained the best and most experienced pilots). And they needed to be to make up for the small size of the Ark compared to the US supercarriers which served alongside in the North Atlantic.
Ark Royal alongside USS Nimitz, demonstrating the vast difference in the size of the ships.
US Navy A-7 Corsairs flying with Royal Navy Phantoms and Buccaneers from Ark Royal, 1976.
Ark Royal finally left service at the end of 1978, and was sold for scrap in 1980. Although she never saw direct combat, she maintained the long arm of the Royal Navy, being Britain’s largest and most advanced carrier for her entire career, and providing a valuable deterrent to would-be aggressors. Although her primary purpose in later life was to counter the threat of Soviet cruisers to ensure that the Atlantic was kept open in the event of hostilities, one of her more storied roles of late came in an altogether different situation. Rowland White's excellent book Phoenix Squadron brought to the public eye a successful operation carried out by Ark Royal’s Buccaneers over Belize in 1972. The operation was a great demonstration of the strong deterrent effects of having an aircraft carrier on hand – a deterrent which may well have prevented another conflict flaring up a decade later had the Ark Royal been replaced by a similarly capable ship.
As it was, with budget pressures being as they were and the re-focus of the Royal Navy as an anti-submarine force in NATO waters, Ark Royal was to be replaced by what was referred to at the time as three “through-deck cruisers” – essentially anti-submarine aircraft carriers – of the Invincible-class. Of course many of the capabilities of the Ark Royal would not be replaced at all, though in the end the three Invincibles would at least retain limited fixed-wing aviation in the form of the STOVL Sea Harrier. (The pre-Harrier prototype P.1127 Kestrel first conducted shipboard trials on the Ark Royal in 1963.) After a failed effort to preserve the carrier, and the public outcry over her scrapping, the Navy decided to adopt the name for the third Invincible-class ship, which is of course the Ark Royal we know today.
Post Script: in 1976, the Ark Royal was featured in a BBC television series entitled "Sailor". The episodes offer a wonderful insight into life onboard the carrier at that time. Several excerpts from the series are available on YouTube, including this great one of a Buccaneer "bolters" and landings. Apparently the series is now available on DVD, though I have yet to come across it.
This is the second installment of my look back at the four British aircraft carriers which have carried the name Ark Royal. The second carrier had by far the shortest lifespan of the Ark Royals but had a hugely extensive wartime career operating taking her from South Africa to Norway to Egypt and everywhere in between. Consider this something of a primer only - I couldn’t possibly touch on all of this ship’s adventures and accomplishments during her short career.
Part 2 – The Fleet Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal (Pennant Number 91)
The second carrier Ark Royal was commissioned in December 1938 in the run up to the Second World War. She was originally designed to accommodate 72 aircraft, with two 16ft high and 60ft wide hangars, and an 800ft long flight deck (though her typical wartime complement was 54 aircraft). Compared with previous British carriers of World War I design and vintage, Ark Royal represented a step change in size and capability, and is viewed by many as Britain’s first modern fleet carrier design.
Due to Washington Naval Treaty limitations, weight was a critical factor, with the limit of 22,000 tons maximum displacement imposed. This is one of the reasons why Ark Royal had an enclosed hangar within the hull structure, as opposed to an open hangar as was popular on US carriers. This, perhaps paradoxically, required less overall structure to support the flight deck and hull stresses, and therefore allowed for a lighter hull. Another weight saving aspect of the design was the extensive use of structural welding by her builders Cammell-Laird on over 60% of the hull, far greater than any previous ships that large.
In a sign of the times, the Ark Royal also made extensive use of on board electrical machinery compared with older ships. Despite this, she was never fitted with radar during her wartime service, and relied on an accompanying cruiser’s radar for flight direction, relaying information between the ships with flag signals.
There was considerable debate over the ship’s armour and armament. The Ark Royal was built with 4.5” belt armour and 3.5” lower deck armour to sufficiently protect the machinery spaces, magazine and aviation fuel stores from 6” shells and 500lb bombs. Due to the weight limitations, the Ark Royal had no additional flight deck armour like later wartime British carriers.
Originally, 5.1” guns were studied, but with the understanding that a carrier would always have a cruiser escort, the main purpose for carrier guns should therefore be anti-aircraft. With that, dual purpose 4.5” guns were fitted on twin mounts just below the level of the flight deck, supplemented by six 8-barrel pom-pom anti-aircraft guns.
The pom-poms were originally to be fitted on sponsons, but this idea was abandoned after for fear that a stray aircraft would crash into them. At this time, British aircraft carriers did not have crash barriers installed; Ark Royal would later be the first British carrier to get crash barriers. Crash barriers were an American innovation and were essential to allow deck parking of aircraft during landing operations. The RN had made little use of the deck parking concept until later in the war, preferring an entirely hangar parking concept which kept the aircraft protected from the elements of the North Atlantic.
The ship was fitted with two bow catapults, known then as accelerators, which could launch a 12,000lb aircraft at 56kts. However, the catapults were cumbersome and were only used to launch the first few aircraft of an air group assembled on deck, with later aircraft being able to take-off by themselves with the freed-up deck length.
Ark Royal just after launch in April 1937.
The Ark Royal had a short but very active career, being the fleet’s largest carrier. She was originally intended to serve in the Far East, but the developing political events in Europe and Africa in the late 1930’s meant that she was kept in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters when she entered service.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, she served in home waters on ASW hunter-killer operations and was almost lost within the first couple of weeks. On the 14th September, while on an ASW sweep, she was spotted by a U-boat and fired at by three torpedoes. Luckily for the Ark, all three torpedoes missed her and no damage was sustained; the U-boat was quickly dispatched by an escorting destroyer. (Three days later, in a similar operation, the carrier Courageous was sunk by U-boat torpedoes, prompting the Admiralty to change the use of carriers away from this role.)
Later in the same year, the Ark Royal was in another near miss during an air attack by German Heinkel He 111 bombers. During the attack, the ship maneuvered sharply to avoid the bombs. One of the Heinkels dropped a bomb which exploded less than 100ft of the ship, though no serious damage occurred. However, the closeness of the explosion, the heeling of the ship due to tight maneuvering, and that the fleet was spotted without the carrier the next day by a German aircraft led the Nazi propaganda machine to announce the news that the Ark Royal had been sunk. When the Nazi propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw taunted over the radio “Where is the Ark Royal?”, the crew of the carrier, listening on the wireless, shouted “Here!” in reply.
German newspaper claiming the "sinking" of Ark Royal.
Towards the end of the year, the Ark Royal was sent to the South Atlantic in support of the search for the German surface raider the Graf Spee. Although not involved in the Battle of the River Plate when Graff Spee was damaged and sought refuge in Montevedeo, the Ark did indirectly play a role in the Graf Spee’s ultimate demise when the ship’s commander, Capitain Langsdorff, became convinced by press leaks that a large force led by Ark Royal was waiting for her just over the horizon; Langsdorff decided to scuttle the ship. (In reality, Ark Royal was still 36 hours away.)
In the spring of 1941, the Ark Royal was back in the North Sea during the Norwegian campaign. In a first for the Royal Navy and what would later become a fundamental carrier task, the Ark’s fighters were used to provide primary air cover for other Allied ships, as well as conduction naval and ground attack missions. However, with the fall of France in June 1940, and the French Mediterranean fleet under Vichy control, the Ark Royal was sent to Gibraltar to join the newly formed Force H to cover the Western Mediterranean.
As part of Force H, the Ark Royal took part in some of her most dramatic, dangerous and in some cases controversial operations (most notably, the sinking of the Vichy French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir). In her time in the Mediterranean, the Ark Royal provided air cover for several convoys travelling to Malta or Egypt, and she mounted attacks on the Italian air base at Cagliari and the ports of Genoa and La Spezia. Life in the Mediterranean was dangerous for Ark Royal, and she had a number of close calls with Italian bombers and further Axis claims of her sinking, leading Flight magazine in July 1940 to state “Poor Ark Royal! She is always being sunk by air bombs.”
Ark Royal under attack from Italian bombers.
Probably the most famous action of the Ark Royal was her attack on the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. The carrier had been dispatched from Gibraltar to join the hunt for the Bismarck after it had sunk the British battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Straights. With the Bismarck only a day’s sail away from German air cover in occupied France, the Ark Royal’s Swordfish aircraft were sent out to attack the ship with torpedoes in order to slow her down and prevent her from reaching safety before the British Home Fleet could catch her. The Swordfish were successful with three hits on the Bismarck, one critically disabling her rudder and causing an uncontrollable course change in the ship towards the oncoming Home Fleet which would sink her.
In many ways, the operation to find and sink the Bismarck was a classic example of how carriers were expected to be utilized as part of a fleet action. The carriers would accompany the battleship fleet, using their aircraft to harass and damage elements of an enemy fleet, slowing them down sufficiently to allow the pursuers to bring about a general surface action. Before the Pacific War, in particular the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, aircraft carriers were not really expected to provide decisive victories on their own in battle on the open sea. The battleship was still regarded as the most decisive weapon of the fleet.
The Ark Royal returned to the Mediterranean for another round of convoy cover to Malta. It was on return from Malta in Novemeber 1941 that the ship which had evaded so many bombs and torpedoes was finally struck by a U-boat torpedo off the Spanish coast. Flooding quickly spread through the ship and she listed heavily. Despite efforts to tow the carrier into port, she eventually capsized and sank some 30 miles from Gibraltar.
Ark Royal sinking after being struck by a torpedo.
The investigations that followed, though originally critical of the ship's commander for failing to undertake sufficient damage control, finally placed most of the blame on the design of the ship itself. The layout of the ships machinery spaces and bulkheads meant that the flooding was able to spread quickly through the ship, and there was a general lack of redundancy in the electrical system which hampered efforts to save the ship. Many of the design recommendations resulting from the loss of the Ark Royal were implemented onto new carriers being built, including the upcoming enlarged Audacious-class, of which one of the ships would be renamed to carry on the legacy of the Ark Royal.
Mike Rossiter’s “Ark Royal”; D K Brown's "Nelson to Vangaurd"; Conway's History of the Ship: "Eclipse of the Big Gun"; Bernard Ireland's "Aircraft Carriers"; and of course Flight’s archives.
As ever, I would gladly accept corrections for any errors or glaring omissions. Expect the third and fourth installments of the Ark Royals in the new year. Happy holidays everyone.
The name Ark Royal has become almost synonymous with British naval aviation – there has existed a British aircraft carrier of that name for almost every year of the last century. Altogether, four aircraft carriers have carried the name Ark Royal, named for the original Elizabethan flagship, spanning from 1914 to the present. With the current HMS Ark Royal passing into retirement, marking the start of a 10-year hiatus to British carrier operations, it gives a chance to look back at the long and illustrious (not THAT Illustrious!) history of the Ark Royal carriers (in a four-part series, of course).
Part 1 - The Seaplane Carrier Ark Royal (1914)
The first modern Ark Royal was a dedicated seaplane ship, commissioned 96 years ago in December 1914 during the early months of the First World War. Built at the Blyth shipyard in Northumberland, she was originally laid down as a merchant ship, but in May 1914 the Admiralty bough the partially built hull early during the construction and had her completed as a dedicated aviation ship.
Ark Royal would represent the first ship that was built as an aircraft carrier. In 1915, Flight magazine’s editor stated confidently that the ship was "[the] first of what will certainly be a new class of naval vessel, which will no doubt form a by no means unimportant unit in all future naval squadrons.”
The fact that such a historic and prestigious name should be bestowed onto an essentially experimental and modest ship was a little strange to say the least; the name was likely chosen by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. (Flight magazine offered up a theory on the name, as written by Mr. Archibald Hurd in the Daily Telegraph. It would appear that Mr. Hurd was something of an authority on the matter of air-sea power at the time.)
The ship design was adapted considerably to her new task during construction. The ship’s engines and superstructure were located well to the aft of the ship, leaving a large clear hold. This gave the ship space for ten aircraft below deck, as well as workshops, stores and aviation fuel storage (with fire protection). The aircraft could be hoisted onto the top deck and into the water by two large cranes. Uniquely, she could be fitted with a sail on her mizzen mast to help keep her pointed into the wind.
The entire forward-third of the deck was cleared to allow wheeled aircraft (and seaplanes on trolleys) to take-off directly from the ship, though wheeled aircraft could not be recovered and had to return to shore for landing. However, her low speed of only 11kts meant that launching wheeled aircraft was operationally impossible as it was difficult to get enough wind over the deck to allow the aircraft to take-off in such a short distance. As a result, she operated with only seaplanes which could take-off from the water.
Soon after commissioning, Ark Royal was dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean with six seaplanes to take part in the Dardanelles campaign. Her aircraft were available from the outset of the campaign, providing reconnaissance for the fleet, and helping to relay the fall of shots from the battleships as they fired on the Turkish coastal forts.
Ultimately however, the still-infant technology of naval aviation meant that the Ark Royal and her seaplanes could provide only limited (though none the less pioneering) operational value for the fleet at the Dardanelles. With the eventual arrival of German U-boats to the area, the ship’s slow speed made her too vulnerable and she was withdrawn back to the comparative safety of Salonika, where she operated for the remainder of the war.
Ark Royal continued in service after the war, providing British assistance to the White Russians during the Russian Civil War, supporting aircraft in Somalia, and serving as a seaplane depot ship. Ark Royal was later used as an experimental platform for new naval aviation concepts, notably being fitted with a catapult on her forward deck for trials in the 1930’s. In 1935 she was renamed Pegasus to free up the name Ark Royal for the new large fleet carrier then under construction. In the Second World War, Pegasus was mainly used to transport aircraft, but did briefly serve as a fighter catapult ship on Atlantic convoys, being one of the few aircraft carriers to serve during both world wars. She was eventually paid-off in 1946, and scrapped in 1950 after her long naval career.
Some additional photos of the 1914 Ark Royal can be found here. Stay tuned for part 2 for the second carrier Ark Royal which gained fame during the Second World War.
This is the second part of my look back at the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.
Note: As with the previous post, I found Douglas J. Ingells’ book L-1011 TriStar and the Lockheed Story, an invaluable piece of information. In addition, Bill Gunston’s excellent book The Development of Jet and Turbine Aero Engines had some interesting information on the RB.211. Not least of course, Flight’s archives provided a huge amount of information and accounts of the events described below. I’ve tried to stick to the sources as much as possible, but if anyone notices any errors or glaring omissions, please feel free to comment accordingly.
Part 2: The Unraveling
In Bill Hannan’s opinion, then Chief Engineer for the L-1011 program, any of the big three engine makers, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce, were capable of providing the engine for the L-1011.
Besides needing a large and fuel efficient engine, Lockheed also wanted a very quiet engine. Compared with the Boeing 747 and C-5 Galaxy, Lockheed’s "airbus" (non-capitalized) would be operating from smaller airports where noise restrictions were likely to be more stringent. Bill Hannan pushed for a 100dB limit, which was a similar noise footprint to the Lockheed Electra turboprop. In addition, Lockheed wanted all the engine’s systems to be modularized and mounted on the outer fan casing, not the core, for easy maintenance.
In 1967, when the engine choice came to the forefront, both GE and Pratt had high by-pass ratio engines already in the works. Pratt had developed the JT9D for the Boeing 747-100, but the design was essentially frozen and Pratt was reluctant to make any significant changes that would require new production tooling. As is, the JT9D was too powerful and too noisy for Lockheed’s airbus. GE was in a similar situation with the TF39 engine, which would power the C-5 Galaxy. GE didn’t want to make a lot of changes for the smaller airbus. (In the end, GE did provide an engine for the similarly sized DC-10, by clipping the length of the TF39 fan blades to create the CF6.)
At the same time, Rolls-Royce was working on a high by-pass ratio three-shaft technology demonstrator, but had no production high-BPR engines yet. Rolls looked to Lockheed’s new airbus as a platform to break into the high by-pass turbofan market. With no frozen design already in place, Rolls was willing to accommodate Lockheed’s requirements on power, noise and layout and essentially build them a tailor-made engine. Rolls was also willing to keep the price low to get onboard. This engine was to be the RB.211-22, and was largely developed in parallel with the L-1011 airframe. Lockheed and Rolls-Royce signed a fixed-price contract in March 1968 for the development and supply of the new turbofan engine. At the time, Rolls-Royce estimated that the RB.211 development costs would be £65-70 million.
The history of what became the RB.211 can be traced back to 1964, when Rolls-Royce had started a number of Advanced Technology Exercises. From these exercises, Rolls came up with a two shaft turbofan design known as the RB.178, rated for 27,000lbs of thrust. Market pressure for larger engines for planes like the 747 and C-5 was forcing the engine makers to go bigger however, and in 1965/66 the significantly larger RB.178-51 began to emerge. The dash 51 was a three shaft design capable of producing 45,000lbs of thrust and aimed specifically at the upcoming widebody airbus planes in the US and Europe. As Rolls continued developing the RB.178 through 1967 and ’68, three separate designs emerged: the smaller two shaft RB.203 for the Fairchild/Fokker F-228, the three shaft RB.207 for the British-French-German airbus (what became the actual Airbus A300), and the three shaft RB.211 for the Lockheed L-1011.
The reasoning behind the three-shaft design was improved efficiency and lower noise. Also, the three-shaft design was in many ways actually less complicated, needing 25% fewer parts for the same thrust rating. Besides the unique three-shaft layout, another pioneering feature of the RB.211 was the use of a new carbon fiber material called Hyfil for the fan blades. The advantages of Hyfil blades over traditional titanium blades were numerous. The Hyfil blades were cheaper to manufacture, were lighter and due to a lower aspect ratio, fewer of them were needed (only 24 compared with 33 titanium blades). This all culminated in a potential drop of another 1% drop in specific fuel consumption and weight savings of 300lb per engine from the Hyfil blades alone. Rolls was also developing a traditional titanium fan blade for the RB.211 in concurrence with the Hyfil blade as insurance in case the new material didn’t work out as planned.
The first RB.211 ran at Derby on Aug 31, 1968, with the initial engine rig testing phase proceeding well. The engine began flight testing on a modified VC-10 in March 1970. The RB.211 engine was mounted in place of the two port-side Conway engines, and it was fully integrated into the aircraft’s air, hydraulic and electrical systems. At this time there was still a lot of confidence in the progress of the engine program. In fact, Hyfil blades had already flown some 16,000 hrs in modified RR Conway engines fitted aboard some BOAC VC-10s.
Problems began to emerge during the spring of 1970 however, with a series of setbacks for the Hyfil fan blade design. Firstly, it was found that flying through very heavy rain and hail caused unexpected erosion of the Hyfil blades. This was first revealed during some of the Conway Hyfil testing, when some blades would exhibit partial de-lamination due to moisture penetration. RR attempted to correct the problem with by adding nickel plating to the leading edge and coating the blades in a polyurethane paint.
Then bird-strike testing on the RB.211 highlighted a lack of shear strength in the Hyfil blades, and steel laminations had to be inserted into the blades to improve the stress load paths. Then Rolls had to overcome fatigue and vibration problems resulting from the added steel laminations. As the problems with Hyfil mounted, it started to look like Rolls may have to revert to the titanium fan blade.
Still, reverting to the titanium blade cost Rolls-Royce additional time and money to bring the engine back on track, and eliminated a lot of the RB.211’s advantages in efficiency and weight. This was in addition to increases Rolls was experiencing in the cost of labor and materials. It was becoming apparent that Rolls-Royce had vastly underestimated the development costs of the new engine and may even be unable to deliver on the engine’s performance commitments.
At the end of 1970, Rolls-Royce brought Stanley Hooker, famed aero engine designer for both Rolls-Royce and Bristol-Siddley, back from retirement to help solve the RB.211 problems. What he found were mismatched shaft speeds, turbine efficiencies running 20% below target, and thrust outputs of as low as 34,200lb on some engines instead of the promised 42,000lb.
The results of Hooker’s work are impressive. One particular engine which had previously only produced 37,000lb with difficulty could then produce over 43,500lb with the improvements implemented by Hooker’s team.
However, just as the technical problems were being overcome, Rolls-Royce’s financial position was rapidly deteriorating. In February 1971, the company collapsed and went into receivership, having to be nationalized by the British government. I found the saga of the following six months best described by a chronology given in Douglas Ingells’ book:
February 2, 1971 – Lockheed team headed by Dan Haughton [Lockheed chairman] arrives in London for a joint program review with Rolls-Royce management on the status of the engines for the TriStar. They get first indication that British Government has withdrawn financial backing and Rolls-Royce is contemplating receivership.
February 4 – Rolls-Royce, citing losses on RB.211 engine development, requests appointment of a receiver and announces that it is not feasible for it to proceed with its RB.211 engine contract with Lockheed. The British Government states that it will acquire certain assets of Rolls-Royce but denies liability with respect to the RB.211 engine contract. Portions of Rolls-Royce are subsequently reorganized as a government-owned company – Rolls-Royce (1971) Ltd., with Lord Cole as chairman. Lockheed begins exploring various means of continuing the L-1011 program including the availability of U.S.-manufactured engines.
February 9 – Haughton meets with L-1011 customers in New York. The airlines express concern over the impact on delivery schedules caused by Rolls’ collapse. Lockheed proposes no single course of action other than it will continue to explore all possible options.
February 11 – The British Government announces interim financing to continue work on RB.211 engine, pending exploration of the possible continuation of the L-1011 program.
February 17 – Dan Haughton is back in London again for initial conferences with Rolls and British Government officials regarding British terms for restoring the engine program.
February 20 – After conferring with British Defence Secretary Lord Carrington and Minister of Aviation Supply Frederick Corfield, Haughton returns to the U.S. announcing he will resume talks with British Government representatives early in March, He meets U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Packard in Washington to give a status report on the engine situation and then, on March 2, is back in London again for meetings with British Government officials and Rolls-Royce management.
March 4 – British propose a plan for a joint Lockheed-British company to carry out the engine program; and an engine price increase; British government funding of an additional $144 million, and a requirement for Lockheed to arrange that the British government would be repaid its investments if Lockheed should fail to carry through with the L-1011 program. Lockheed informs the Government it cannot accept elements of the British offer. Haughton meets with L-1011 customers in New York and presents British proposals and results of Lockheed evaluation of the availability of alternate General Electric and Pratt & Whitney engines for the TriStar.
March 9 – Technical and financial representatives of customer airlines meet in Burbank for several days and receive detailed presentations from General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. They conduct comparative analyses of Rolls-Royce and U.S.-built engines.
March 13, 1971 – Haughton sends message to Lord Carrington reporting that he has presented the British proposals to L-1011 customers, the U.S. Government, and banks. He reports that the airlines also find the offer unacceptable and invites the British to present best offer for consideration by Lockheed and the airlines.
March 15 – Haughton and Lockheed president A. Carl Kotchian meet senior officials of L-1011 customers for status report discussions, and also present a status report to Secretary Packard, to U.S. Treasury Secretary Connally, and to Lockheed’s lending banks.
March 19 – A joint British Government/Rolls-Royce team headed by Sir William Nield, British Cabinet Secretary, begins meetings with Lockheed in Burbank. Talks move to Washington where parties meet with Treasury Secretary Connally and with British Ambassador Lord Cromer.
March 24 – Lord Carrington and Sir Peter Rawlinson, Attorney General, fly from London to join negotiations. Before returning to London the following evening, Lord Carrington receives Lockheed’s latest offer and meets with Secretary Connally.
March 30 – Sir William Nield receives directions from London after Lord Carrington briefs Prime Minister Heath and other cabinet ministers. Following a meeting of Haughton and Nield, a statement is issued regarding “positions conditionally agreed to” by Lockheed and the British Government. Lockheed briefs L-1011 customers individually regarding the conditional agreements.
April 8 & 14 – Lockheed meets with its lending banks to report on the conditional agreements, and L-1011 airline meetings for review and discussion of their positions. Those attending agree that significant progress has been made and to expedite the resolution of outstanding issues.
April 20 – Prime Minister Heath says the British Government will not proceed with the RB.211 without guarantees as to future of Lockheed. Six days later banks provide an additional $50,000,000 of loans to Lockheed, bringing total bank financing to $400,000,000. Lockheed is also pledged additional security.
April 27 – Treasury Secretary John Connally tells a Senate subcommittee that Lockheed will need a government loan guarantee.
May 5 – Eastern Air Lines signs a conditional agreement reaffirming its original purchase of 50 Lockheed L-1011 TriStars with Rolls-Royce RB.211 engines. The next day Secretary Connally announces that the U.S. Administration will support a government loan guarantee.
May 6 – Trans World Airlines announces conditions that must be satisfied for it to continue with L-1011. One of the conditions is a government loan guarantee.
May 11 – Lord Carrington tells Parliament that the British Government has formally committed $240 million to finance completion of the RB.211, and that Rolls-Royce and Lockheed have reached a conditional agreement subject to U.S. Government guarantee of additional Lockheed financing.
All through June and July, House and Senate Hearings dragged on. Lockheed had been forced to look to Washington as a last resort.
July 30 – House passes the loan guarantee bill with a $250 million ceiling, 192 to 189.
August 2 – Senate gives final congressional approval adopting the House bill, 49 to 48.
September 14 – A “summit meeting” is held at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York to finalize Lockheed’s expanded bank credit agreement made possible by the Emergency Loan Guarantee Act. Attending were representatives of Lockheed’s 24 lending banks, the Treasury and Emergency Loan Guarantee Board, airline customers, Rolls-Royce, and the British Government.
“The agreement gave us the opportunity to prevent the bankruptcy that had been threatening Lockheed ever since the Rolls-Royce receivership in February,” explained Dan Haughton. “It enabled Lockheed to continue the L-1011 “TriStar” program, and restore our corporate strength and position.”
The RB.211 program would bounce back, and in the end Rolls-Royce would deliver an excellent engine to Lockheed, which in some ways was performing even better than originally promised. But all those months of technical and financial turmoil certainly left a lingering impact on both companies, and the TriStar itself would never fully recover from them.
Although the first flight of the L-1011 was 40 years ago last week in November of 1970, the aircraft didn’t enter service with Eastern Air Lines until April 1972. This was 8 months after the DC-10 began service with American Airlines, in a race that Lockheed was originally winning. But this initial service entry delay wasn’t the main cause of the long-term demise of the L-1011 (in fact, the baseline L-1011-1 out sold the equivalent DC-10-10).
The financial situation at Rolls-Royce, even after the bailout, meant that higher thrust versions of the RB.211 were slow to be developed and brought to market. Without larger engines, Lockheed couldn’t offer longer range versions of the L-1011 to compete with Douglas. By the time the baseline DC-10-10 had entered service in August 1971, Douglas was already working on the dash 30 long range version with a maximum take-off weight of 572,000lb and larger 51,000lb CF6-50 engines. The DC-10-30 proved to be a very capable aircraft, and Lockheed would ultimately never quite match its payload/range performance.
Lockheed followed the TriStar dash 1 with the dash 100 which had an additional fuel tank, providing a range increase of around 900 miles. But without larger engines, the increase in maximum take-off weight wasn’t very significant (from 430,000lb to 466,000lb), so overall performance was still poor compared with the DC-10-30. Not until the introduction of the 50,000lb-rated RB.211-524 engine would Lockheed come close to the DC-10-30, with the shortened, long-range L-1011-500. By the time the dash 500 was launched in 1976 however, the damage had largely been done and Lockheed had lost out on many sales to the DC-10-30. With Douglas in a superior market position, the new European Airbus A300B coming into service, and the Boeing 767 on the horizon, Lockheed was getting squeezed out of the market and the TriStar’s days were numbered. Lockheed would announce the end of L-1011 production in 1981, with the 250th and last example coming off the Palmdale production line in 1984, and once again Lockheed had bowed out of the commercial airliner business.
Although the L-1011 never made the commercial impact that many hoped it would, I consider that it has unintentionally left a lasting indirect legacy on the commercial aviation industry today.
McDonnell Douglas may have “won” the battle of the trijets, but the DC-10 was likewise not a great financial success – the market was too small at that time for two such similar planes. Imagine what would have happened if the L-1011 and the DC-10 didn’t go head to head. If Lockheed had stayed out of the commercial airliner business in the 1960s, the DC-10 could have been a much stronger financial success and McDonnell Douglas could well have remained as an independent airframer to this day. On the flip side, if the DC-10 never came to pass, then it’s conceivable that Lockheed, on the strength of a more successful TriStar program, could have become a major player in the commercial business (consider how Airbus rose to parity with Boeing in only a generation).
And although conceived originally for domestic requirements, I would suggest that the airbus concept which L-1011 and the DC-10 pioneered, paved the way for international air travel as much as the Boeing 747 did. The availability of a smaller widebodies made a lot of secondary international routes more viable for airlines, and marked the beginning of what would become the international point-to-point air travel concept. At a time when ETOPS was not yet a reality, how many international city-pair connections would not have existed without the tri-jets?
Considering it takes a lot of blame for the TriStar’s ultimate demise, it is perhaps ironic that the Rolls-Royce RB.211 engine became a much greater success in its own right. The RB.211 became renowned for its reliability in service, and in addition to the L-1011, went on to power the Boeing 747, 757 and 767. Its legacy still lives on today in the form of the Trent engine family, the lead engine on the A380, 787 and A350.
The Lockheed L-1011 TriStar must surely now be in its final decade of service, but I hope that it will remain an important part of the history of commercial aviation for decades more to come.
This week marked the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar (hat tip to Max Kingsley-Jones).
The TriStar was the last in a long line of Lockheed commercial aircraft, including geat names like the Electra and Constellation, and the last new Lockheed aircraft (I think) to have a star-themed name. Many know about the about the headlines behind the L-1011: the sales battles with the DC-10 which hurt both companies and of course the infamous engine development problems. But looking through the history of the TriStar’s development I was surprised at how great of a story it is, one I felt compelled to re-tell. The story of how the L-1011 came to be is really one of two halves, of early optimism and hope, and of later despair as trouble catches up with the program. I'll try to cover the former in this post, with the later in a follow-on post.
Note: A lot of the information I got on the TriStar story came from a book I found in a second-hand book store a few years ago: L-1011 TriStar and the Lockheed Story by Douglas J. Ingells (Aero Publishers, 1973). It’s a real gem of a book, written not long after the L-1011 entered service. It’s a cheerful, optimistic mix of the history of Lockheed in general, and something of an official record of the L-1011’s development. The book isn’t terribly technical, but it does tell an interesting narrative of how the TriStar came to be. I also go some good information from Flight's archives, a source so vast I couldn't possibly take everything in, but this article offers some great additional reading.
Part 1: The Optimism Bit
In the summer of 1965, Lockheed was working on proposals for the US SST program, the US Air Force C-5 program, and the Navy long-range patrol plane program.
During early design studies for the Navy program (which would end up simply as the upgraded P-3C), Lockheed engineers in Burbank, California looked at a number of two, three and four-engine concepts. One of the twin-engine designs looked very promising to the engineers, but the Navy was too reluctant to accept a twin-engine aircraft for the long range maritime patrol mission.
Lockheed engineers felt this design had so much promise however that they continued to develop the twin-engine concept on the side as a potential commercial aircraft with an enlarged fuselage. What emerged from the conceptual studies was a high wing, twin turbofan powered passenger aircraft with an oval fuselage that was wider than it was high. The cabin could accommodate up to 250 passengers in a twin-aisle configuration.
Work on the P-3C project had to take priority however, so the “little big twin” design went no further, and the drawings were stored away.
Around six months later in the spring of 1966, Rudy Thoren, Lockheed’s Chief Engineer at Burbank, met with his counterpart at American Airlines, Frank Kolk, to discuss a new airliner requirement. American wanted an efficient, widebody plane to operate as a “shuttle bus” between New York and Chicago. This big stipulation was that the aircraft had to be able to operate out of New York’s LaGuardia airport, where American had invested a lot of money. LaGuardia’s runway was only rated to carry aircraft up to 270,000lb because it was built on top of piers out into the harbor. Lockheed’s Bill Hannon, who would later become the Chief Engineer for the L-1011 program, was at the meeting. He recalled the “big little twin” design his team had come up with on the P-3C program, and showed the drawings to an excited Kolk. On his trip, Kolk also paid a visit to Douglas at nearby Long Beach to talk with them about the same set of requirements. Looking back, this is when the trijet race quietly began.
The aircraft was often referred to by the generic term “airbus” (not capitalized) since this is how airlines such as American thought they would operate this type of plane, on high traffic shuttle routes. At the same time, it was known that European aerospace firms were starting their own airbus project. Lockheed believed it “had to catch the bus, or miss it”.
Serious work began on Lockheed’s airbus project in the summer of ‘66. On December 31st of the year, it was announced that Boeing’s model 2707 had won out over Lockheed’s L-2000 for the US supersonic transport project. Although a setback for the company, it provided a “shot in the arm” for the airbus project since Lockheed could now commit significantly more resources and manpower to it.
Lockheed also began canvassing other airlines about the requirements of their concept airliner. Eastern Air Lines liked the size but was notably concerned about operating a twin-engine airliner on it’s over water Caribbean routes. Eastern also wanted to double the range of the original American, again for Caribbean routes. TWA wasn’t keen on the idea of two engines either, due to its routes across the Rockies, and also wanted the additional range for transcontinental flights.
As a result, Lockheed’s original shuttle bus concept started to grow. This growth made a twin configuration less practical since the engine power requirements were already pushing the technology of the day. In the spring of 1967, after many design studies of twinjets and trijets concepts, the trijet won out.
In June of ’67, the airbus project became known as the L-1011-365, because it has a maximum take-off weight of 365,000 lbs. As design work continued, the L-1011 gross weight grew to 385,000 lbs to meet route flexibility requirements of airlines (but it could still meet American’s LaGuardia to Chicago requirement with a lightened fuel load). The aircraft got the official designation L-1011-385-1 “TriStar”, in keeping with Lockheed's stellar-based naming practice. (The 385 portion was often dropped in commercial references, but remained part of the FAA designation.)
Lockheed began formally proposing the TriStar to airlines in September of ’67, including a price and two engine options (the Rolls-Royce RB.211 and the General Electric CF6). The dash 385 was larger than what American ideally wanted, but would go along with it if that was what other airlines insisted on having; Eastern and TWA were both very interested in the dash 385. Lockheed hosted two airline specification standardization meetings in October and December ’67 to get into all the nitty gritty details of the airlines wanted from the plane.
Up until they began formally offering the TriStar, Lockheed thought they were ahead of the competition in their airbus development. However, Douglas had accelerated its own trijet project (to the same American Airlines request) and had essentially caught up to Lockheed. Douglas and Lockheed salesmen would even bump into each other at airline offices as they raced to sell their trijets.
In February 1968, American announced that it would order the DC-10, after Douglas presented them with a better commercial proposal than Lockheed. After that blow, Lockheed’s chairman, Dan Haughton, said “we’re really going to get into this commercial business, or get out of it. So if we’re going to get into it, we better get all the way in.” Lockheed started by cutting the price of the L-1011 to even less than what American had paid for the DC-10.
With the American order lost, Lockheed actually had an opportunity to grow the TriStar’s gross weight even further to satisfy Eastern and TWA’s longer range requirements. The maximum take-off weight grew to 410,000lb (though the -385 designation remained the same), requiring engines rated for 40,600lb of thrust.
Things began to look up for Lockheed, and in March of ’68, Dan Haughton announced deal for 144 TriStars from Eastern, TWA and Air Holdings Ltd, a British firm that would market the plane internationally. Lockheed also announced the aircraft would be fitted with the Rolls-Royce RB.211 engine. These orders were followed up a few days later by Delta Air Lines and Northeast Airlines for 28 more aircraft, bringing the total sales to $2.58 billion.
The big hold out was United Airlines, which had not yet decided which airbus to buy – the L-1011 or the DC-10. Although United liked both planes, it felt the DC-10 was a little too small since it was still sized to the tastes of American Airlines. United told Douglas that if they could convince American to accept a larger gross weight for the DC-10 that would be comparable to the L-1011, then United could evaluate both planes on an even basis. Douglas successfully convinced American to go for the larger plane, and the DC-10 grew to match the TriStar.
United ended up choosing the new DC-10 offering. George Keck, president of United, actually called Lockheed’s Dan Haughton to explain why they chose the DC-10. United had a long relationship with Douglas and knew the company well. More importantly however, Keck believed that if they didn’t buy the DC-10, Douglas would drop the project, and maybe even leave the commercial jet business altogether, and that would not be good for Douglas or United.
Although the initial order battle had been fought, there was plenty more sales battle to be won and lost across the world. In order to ensure long-term sales success, Dan Haughton was determined that the L-1011 would be the most advanced jetliner in the world. It might have worked too, but deep trouble lay ahead for the L-1011 which would hinder the success of the entire program.
There is an interesting article over on Swelblog in which Bill Swelbar gives us a run down on a recent report, Regional Jet Analysis: a Look at Profits per Plane, by analyst Glenn Engel. (Disclaimer: unfortunately I haven’t actually read Engel’s report, so I’m mainly reacting to Bill Swelbar’s commentary.) Unsurprisingly, 50-seat regional jets just aren’t good money makers, and several major US airlines would actually be losing money on their RJ network if it wasn’t for the fact that the RJ traffic feeds a lot of the profit-making mainline traffic. A lot of the focus of the Swelblog analysis of the report is on pilot scope clauses and restrictions of one airline vs. another, and other cost benefits and impacts of regional vs. mainline airline operations. For the purposes of my own article however, I want to take another look at the aircraft itself.
A fundamental problem with the 50-seat regional jet is operating cost relative to capacity. I did some digging on the internet and came up with an unexpected source for comparable trip fuel consumption values for regional and mainline jets – UK airline flybe’s eco labels.
The chart below shows trip fuel consumption for certain aircraft operating over a given route length (see flybe’s eco label PDF for methodology behind the numbers - I can't speak for their validity, but it's the best I have for now). I’ve shown the consumption on a per-seat basis. Unfortunately I don’t have comparable data for a 70-seat RJ. One consideration to note is that flybe operates their aircraft in a high density configuration, but the small ERJ-145 has essentially the same all-economy cabin configuration whether it’s being operated by a low-fare carrier or a full-fare/legacy carrier. So in the interest of fairness, I’ve also recalculated the values for a typical mixed-class seat count and included that chart as well.
In all cases, surprise surprise, the ERJ-145 comes out as the least fuel efficient per seat, even in the more favorable legacy carrier chart. And in the case of legacy carriers, remember that the business class seats in the larger mixed class aircraft generate higher revenue, which can more than make up for the cost increase in fuel per seat, something the ERJ-145 cannot do since it doesn’t have a business class section.
A bigger plane however is only more efficient and potentially more profitable if you can fill the extra seats. A switch from regional jets to mainline jets therefore isn’t an option for every market, and when a market can’t fill a 737 or even an E-Jet, a 50-seater ERJ or CRJ is the only option that makes sense. But since 50-seaters aren’t going to make a lot of money (if any), as Bill Swelbar sums up, it may make more sense for the airline to actually cut those routes from its network entirely, causing a lot of smaller communities to lose their commercial air services.
One subject that was only briefly touched on in the Swelblog article was that there are no 50-seat RJ replacements in the pipeline. Right now, it appears that the venerable CRJ-200 and ERJ-145 represent the pinnacle of 50-seat regional jet technology. With all the advances the industry has made in recent years with GTFs and composite airframes, why is the future of the 50-seat regional jet in limbo? Orders for 50-seat RJs have plummeted to nil in the last few years. Is this order drop-off acting as a deterrent to new development, rather than a wake-up call to get something new onto the market?
These days, it seems that bigger is better. Bombardier and Embraer made their names on the 50-seat CRJ and ERJ respectively, but now their focus is on bigger aircraft like the CSeries and E-Jets.
Perhaps we shouldn’t look to existing manufacturers for a new 50-seater however. After all, for both Bombardier and Embraer, the 50-seat RJ was really their breakthrough product. Maybe we should look to a new upstart or second-tier airframer to come up with the next generation 50-seater RJs, as more efficient engine and airframe technologies being developed today have started to mature a little bit.
But then again, isn’t the more efficient replacement for the 50-seat RJ is already here, and always has been: the turboprop? From the same flybe eco labels, I pulled some comparable data for the 50-seat Q300 and 78-seat Q400 turboprops for comparison with the regional jets.
I was actually surprised how similar the Q300 and Q400 numbers look on a per seat basis, and both offer a big improvement over the ERJ-145, and even over the much larger E-195 on short routes. Turboprops are making something of a comeback of course, but in saying that, I don’t foresee a like-for-like replacement of CRJs and ERJ for Dash-8 Qs and ATRs. The reason RJs made such a great impact on airline networks a decade ago was their speed, and the frequency which that speed allowed. Today’s turboprops have great operating economics, but are just a bit too slow to fill the gaps left by the CRJ-200 and ERJ-145 when you consider the large distances that many RJs are used on, particularly in the US. But if just a little bit of that fuel burn advantage can be traded off for some more speed, we could be onto a winner for props flying 1000km and maybe even 1500km routes.
I’m thinking of course of the same concept that launched the poor-selling Saab 2000. With the 2000, Saab wanted to offer near-jet speeds for turboprop costs. Ironically though, it was the rise of the regional jet that killed it off along with a lot of other turboprop designs out there.
Was the Saab 2000 a great concept that was just a little ahead of its time? There are a lot if differences between the 2010’s and the 1990’s that could make a new aircraft designed to that same concept look much more promising today. Fuel prices are the obvious one that will ultimately make or break the turboprop trade-off, but also consider the work done over the last two decades on engine and propeller technology, cabin noise suppression and of course airframe materials. These will all work towards making a new turboprop design more airline-friendly and more passenger-friendly too.
So maybe we shouldn’t be looking out for a new regional jet after all - we should be on the lookout for a new turboprop. And if it’s feasible to re-launch the Fokker 100, would a new Saab 2000 be such a bad idea?
Picture Copyright UK MoD
The latest round of press rumors on the future of the Royal Navy’s CVF aircraft carrier program has picked up some interesting commentary in the blogosphere. Will the CVF be switched to a CATOBAR configuration and the STOVL F-35B order switched to a conventional naval fighter? (At least the story of possibly sharing a second carrier between the UK and France has since been dismissed.)
Although ordered as a STOVL carrier, the size of the CVF design means it could easily operate in a CATOBAR configuration if refitted with the appropriate equipment (electro-magnetic catapults and arrestor gear). Indeed, the ships were designed to accommodate a future CATOBAR conversion down the road if needed, presumably as part of a replacement study of the STOVL F-35B in twenty years time or so.
Why the CVF was designed as a STOVL carrier at all still debatable. I have read arguments relating to sortie rates and interoperability, etc. However, there were some good user comments posted in Bill Sweetman’s blog post that caught my eye by f4mphantom2 and Bill himself about how the influence of the RN and RAF’s STOVL heritage in shaping the CVF, a theory which I think holds a lot of water. What was to become the F-35B was born from the requirements of the ASTOVL program, shaped around STOVL carriers of the RN and USN (for the USMC). The RN hasn’t operated conventional jets since the late 1970’s. STOVL operations are the culture and viewed as the only realistic option in a future of low defence budgets and reduce commitments. It was only gradually that people started to observe that the RN could feasibly go back to conventional jet fighter operations with the new CVFs – spurred on by two big changes.
Firstly, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review called for a focus on expeditionary warfare and power projection (not a task the Invincible-class was really design for), with large combat air wings to fulfill air superiority and ground attack operations. This called for large ships. Only two would be ordered, so therefore one would have to be capable of supporting all the missions by itself (assuming another would be in refit, or otherwise unavailable).
Secondly, the F-35B is not all that was promised a decade ago. A great leap from the Harrier of course, but over-priced and behind schedule. STOVL economics made sense a decade ago, when the little Harrier was king and provided a cost effective solution to providing multi-role (ish) capability from a small carrier. Now days the RN could get its hands on CATOBAR naval fighters that are available for far less money than the STOVL F-35B (such as the Super Hornet), or CATOBAR naval fighters that have better capabilities available for the same price (such as the F-35C). The Rafale M and possible Sea Gripen provide further options.
In the current climate of service pitted against service for funds, I think this would be a good deal for both the RN and RAF. Why does the RAF want a STOVL fighter anyways? To make sure it can get in on any action when an RN carrier is the only base, and that it won’t take a back seat when the next world crisis erupts. By going with the CATOBAR option on the CVF, the RAF can make the same switch to F-35Cs or whatever, and still maintain its ability to deploy with the fleet. And for land-based ops, the conventional jet fighters offer way more bang for the buck with longer range and larger payloads. And I believe that the continued inter-operability of RAF and RN air wings, based on a common aircraft, will actually help secure the existence of the Fleet Air Arm and naval fast jet aviation since it can benefit from the economies of scale with its larger brother, something that was not as easy in the days of the Sea Harrier.
In terms of defending the UK work share in the JSF program, a switch from the F-35B to the F-35C should help maintain the same overall commitment and good faith with the US DoD and the other major contractors in the program. The question is can the F-35C be brought to service largely as planned, or will it too suffer like the F-35B has.
The impending defence review gives the new UK government an opportunity that didn’t really existed for the previous one since 1998 - the ability stand back and take another look at the big picture. The situation has changed. STOVL is no longer the great value for money option that it once was. Now is the time to redirect the CVF and its air wing towards the more sensible option.
From the DEW Line, it appears that India’s MMRCA competition may about to be knocked down to two competitors – the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. In saying that, I don’t think anyone is taking this report for granted just yet.
However, let’s for a moment assume that the Typhoon and Rafale really have been short listed, or at very least appear to be very highly favored.
This would be a shot in the arm for the Eurofighter consortium after the recent blow in Oman. It’s a turnaround too for Dassault considering that a little over a year ago the Rafale was almost removed from the competition entirely.
Both aircraft are the most expensive offering and arguably the most capable (certainly if offered with AESA radars). In terms of capability, this is an indication that India is seeking out the best it can get to maintain a regional dominance in a part of the world that is seeing increasing military modernization. India appears to have turned away from the lighter aircraft put forward (F-16, Gripen and MiG-35), perhaps an indication in the increasing confidence of India’s indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft program. In the heavier aircraft camp, both of the European airframes can avoid some of the long term technology transfer and spare parts supply issues which could affect the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet bid due to stricter US export controls which have stung India in the past. Ordering US transport aircraft are one thing, but depending on them for the long term support of your front line fighter fleet is another matter.
India and Europe appear to be getting closer as of late, and British PM David Cameron has stated that he wants to develop a stronger relationship between Britain and India.
In a positive sign for the Typhoon, India signed up for a follow on order of 57 additional BAE Hawk trainers last month, a sign perhaps that the difficulties and frustrations of the first Hawk sale have been happily put to one side. There is also the possible adoption of the Typhoon’s Eurojet 200 engines for the Mk2 Tejas fighters, which could help swing a deal.
The Rafale has some compelling advantages too. The aircraft has an excellent air-to-ground capability and an established naval capability, which although not part of this competition, could make a handy tie-breaker if India decides down the road to introduce the Rafale M variant for its carrier force. Plus, Dassault may be willing to negotiate a little more than others on the sticker price to secure a much needed export order.
To be honest, any of the six competitors could be chosen on one merit or another, despite a surprisingly large range is capabilities between them. I guess it’s a positive for the industry that so many good aircraft are in the running that there is no clear favorite.
National protectionism and favoritism in the aerospace industry never quite goes away I guess. Between the debates over Airbus subsidies, the influences of the “Buy America” mentality, airline foreign ownership regulations, and political pressure on the likes of Aeroflot and others to buy domestically built airliners, the industry seems to attract more than its fair share of controversy in the eyes of free trade advocates.
But is protectionism so bad? Is the importance than many countries attach to national aerospace, be it military or civilian, justified in the 21st century? Or is it simply leftover nostalgia or jealousy of bygone eras, and developing countries throwing precious money away while hopelessly trying to play technological catch-up?
What makes the aerospace industry so vital to hold onto for those who have it, and so enticing to those who don’t?
In an Ecnomic History article on the aerospace industry, author Glenn E. Bugos opens with an almost poetic passage that answers the essence of that question quite well:
The aerospace industry ranks among the worlds largest manufacturing industries in terms of people employed and value of output. Yet even beyond its sheer size, the aerospace industry was one of the defining industries of the twentieth century. As a socio-political phenomenon, aerospace has inflamed the imaginations of youth around the world, inspired new schools of industrial design, decisively bolstered both the self-image and power of the nation state, and shrunk the effective size of the globe. As an economic phenomenon, aerospace has consumed the major amount of research and development funds across many fields, subsidized innovation in a vast array of component technologies, evoked new forms of production, spurred construction of enormous manufacturing complexes, inspired technology-sensitive managerial techniques, supported dependent regional economies, and justified the deeper incursion of national governments into their economies. No other industry has so persistently and intimately interacted with the bureaucratic apparatus of the nation state.
China and Japan are attempting to launch themselves into the global jet market. Russia is seeking to regain a lost foothold. India is exploring its options for its own airliner program. All these efforts are benefiting in one way or another from state financial aid and incentives. Many analysts would predict only marginal sales success for an upstart manufacturer in the commercial aviation field. It is easy to say that these programs exist for reasons of national pride and boasting rights, rather than any real commercial opportunities.
In today’s industry, developing a new commercial aircraft is a daunting prospect. The costs involved are huge - $1.5B for the relatively modest MRJ, $3.5B for the larger CSeries for example. That kind of capital is not easy to generate in the private sector, especially for the rookies in the industry with no existing customer base to leverage for sales, nor existing products to leverage for technology development. The likelihood is that without state aid, most of these programs simply wouldn’t even have gotten off the ground. Some of them probably wouldn’t have been missed, but others have a real chance of leading to a growing a sustainable airframer, creating it's own technology and manufacturing centers, and making an impact on the global market place - and that helps drive competition and technological advancement across the board.
Now cue Airbus. I won’t get into the current WTO mess, but it is widely acknowledged that both Airbus and Boeing have, to a greater or lesser extent, taken advantage of favorable state subsidies, indirect funding or financial incentives over the years. The development costs of widebody aircraft are ridiculous – an estimated $15B for the A350 for example. Since the dawn of the jet age and mass market air travel, manufacturers essentially had to stake their future on a successful flagship long haul aircraft. If the gamble didn’t come out favorably, then the future was bleak, and sooner or later they would be pushed out of the market entirely. Decade after decade, successive manufacturers bowed out of the ever-globalizing market. The last example was McDonnell Douglas in the mid-1990’s.
Airbus represented a second chance for the European airframers to learn from the previous mistakes they made as individual entities. Without the state aid, I’m not sure if Airbus' parent companies would have made it past the A300/A310 family, given the stiff competition it faced from the Boeing 767. If that had been the case, the incredibly successful A320 and A330 would not have materialized. These two aircraft families probably represents Airbus’ most significant contributions to the industry, by providing near step changes in performance and efficiency over contemporary aircraft, forcing the rest of the market (namely Boeing) to respond more quickly than it might have liked. Ultimately, this competition brings about better aircraft efficiency, lower costs for the consumer and a more sustainable aviation industry.
The new aircraft developments in Japan, China, Russia, etc, could quite easily serve as the building block for the next round of completion, driving the industry onwards. This is bad news for the established airframers, who need to keep the competition in check, but good news for consumers and the aviation industry as a whole.
However, the WTO cases serve as a reminder that the route of subsidies or financial incentives cannot be relied upon for much longer, especially for an established airframer such as Airbus or Boeing. With free trade advocates likely to dominate in the long term, such support is becoming politically and legally unacceptable. And with an increasingly globalized manufacturing industry, with every larger components work shares being distributed all over the world, some of the reasoning behind such subsidies – supporting national companies hiring a local workforce – starts to disappear.
The net result I fear though is fewer ambitious and technological ground-breaking aircraft programs on either side of the Atlantic, as Airbus, Boeing and others attempt to protect themselves from self inflicting financial risk and ruin in the unsympathetic market of true capitalism.
I heard this interesting radio segment on the future potential of airships on NPR's Science Friday, featuring guests Brandon Buerge of Guardian Flight Systems (largely providing the technical commentary) and Tom Crouch of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (largely providing the historical commentary). Though the article was a little toned down in places for the benefit of the general public listener, but it was still very informative on a number of points provided by the guests. Listening to these guys certainly gives you the impression that airships have a real chance now to round a corner and come back into widespread use in both military and civilian applications.
Since airships disappeared from widespread use in the 1930's, we have seen a number of attempts to bring them back into fashion in a whole manner of roles, but with only very limited adoption. But things could change soon; the US Army has awarded a more than half-billion dollar contract to Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles, which Buerge says is "more money than the [airship] industry has seen probably in the last 40 years together", to develop the HAV3 hybrid airship for the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) contract. Positive experience with the LEMV can only help the reputation of this technology and perhaps convince the US military to take a chance on utilizing airships in other applications, notably transport.
It is only through wide scale adoption by the military (and only the US military really has the funds to pay for the early development) that airships can hope to make any form of a comeback in the commercial world, by funding the design, construction and operational research for successful, economical and large airships. And the opportunity for the airship is probably now better than ever. The military need for long endurance surveillance aircraft (which drove the LEMV requirements) is very important for current operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Large airships can provide significant fuel savings over conventional transport aircraft, and can potentially deliver cargo to areas with very limited infrastructure (though the infrastructure needs for full-time basing is unclear for very large airships). Also, as Buerge states in the radio segment, airships scale up must more efficiency than fixed-wing aircraft, making very-large airlifters a practical possibility.
If the airship can find a home in the US military and elsewhere, then it would only be a matter of time before the commercial world can reap the same rewards for a practical cost. The commercial cargo industries are the obvious benefactors of the technology, but passenger services could be a reality too. Never mind flying cruise ships, what about flying car ferries along the main sea links in Europe and Asia? Airships would clearly be a lot faster than the ferries, the only real competition for a speedy crossing would come from something like the Channel Tunnel, and such rail links are few and far between. Airships wouldn't even have to stop at the shore like a ferry, and could fly inland to a large population center - London to Paris with the family, pet dog and the car in less than 3 hours, with a great view of the English and French countryside along the way? Beats the 20kg of luggage and 30 inch seat pitch you get with the airlines.
(Lockheed Martin Photo)
As reported by flightglobal, according to this report by the Project 2049 Institute, Taiwan wants STOVL fighters. Not many countries have expressed a lot of interest in STOVL jet aircraft, and even fewer have gone through and actually operated them. The pros and cons of STOVL fighters in general have been widely discussed, both in the context of the new F-35B (STOVL variant of the JSF program), and the Harrier that preceded it. For a little background info, an excellent critique of the operational difficulties and opportunities of the F-35B can be found here. Many countries rightly see that the benefits gained from a STOVL design - the ability to operate from austere, damaged or very small runways - do not outweigh the increased costs and overall performance disadvantages compared with similar conventional aircraft.
The jet that made STOVL famous was of course the Harrier, originally designed to allow the Western Allies to maintain air operations in Central Europe even if major airfields were damaged or destroyed by Soviet air or missile attack. Of course the world is a different place now, and such threats to airfields are essentially non-existent. Since the end of the Cold War, one of the few operational advantages of a STOVL jet aircraft just isn’t necessary anymore. Or is it? The US and UK certainly aren’t under such a threat, but Taiwan is a different story, and one not often noticed in the STOVL debate.
Taiwan is under an ever increasing threat from mainland China (PRC). The PLAAF, like the other branches of the PRC military, is in a rapid modernization effort to field not only more advanced combat aircraft, but also enabler platforms such as AEW, electronic attack and surveillance aircraft, which make the combat aircraft that much more effective. But the PLAAF is only half of the problem for Taiwan. The other factor is the PRC’s large and capable short and medium-ranged ballistic missile force. On day one of any conflict, it will be this force that kicks things off, and very near the top of the target list will be Taiwan’s air fields. With the ROCAF knocked out, PLAAF aircraft can operate over Taiwan with relative impunity.
Taiwan of course knows this and has taken some dramatic steps to reduce the susceptibility of ROCAF fighters, such as building huge underground hangar complexes, supposedly large enough to house half of Taiwan’s fighter jets. But however well you protect the hangars, these planes still have to go outside and takeoff from a long, paved runway. And runways have historically proven to be a very vulnerable airfield asset to enemy air attack.
So the issue of airfield vulnerability is very real in Taiwan, just as it was in Central Europe during the Cold War. The advantages of STOVL fighters for the ROCAF start to show themselves. Most critiques of STOVL technology largely dismiss the idea of taking-off vertically from small clearings as impractical because, although possible, those aircraft could not carry a useful fuel and/or weapons payload. The best hiding places are impractical to operate from and such wide dispersion of air assets would be logistically impossible to support. However, I read this article, from 1986, advocating the advantages of the widespread use of STOVL aircraft in Central Europe (actually, it uses the older term VSTOL, though both Harriers back then and F-35Bs have similar vertical take-off capabilities and limitations). The article pushes a hybrid approach to STOVL operations. From the article:
During combat, the aircraft…would be dispersed over a wide area, with no more than three or four aircraft based together in a single location or hide... Each hide would include parking for the aircraft, a pad suitable for vertical takeoff and landing, and enough fuel for each aircraft to fly to other locations within 50 nautical miles, three times a day, for three to seven days. To reduce transportation requirements, a hide would have only one reload of air-to-air missiles for each aircraft and only minor maintenance capabilities.
…A cycle would begin when the aircraft takes off vertically from the hide, carrying only its basic missile load. It would then fly to a predetermined short strip, which might be a field or road, where air-to-surface munitions and fuel are located. This strip and others like it would be used for only short periods of time, perhaps less than a day. Landing at the strip, the aircraft would be loaded with air-to-surface munitions and have its fuel topped off. Using a short takeoff run [allowing a full fuel/weapons load], the aircraft would fly an attack mission, returning to the strip to be refueled and rearmed until the scheduled sorties in the cycle were flown. At this time, it would recover at the hide for crew change and minor maintenance.
The article goes on to consider several other details, but the above should give you the fundamental idea. The context is obviously about ground attack operations in Central Europe, but parallels do exist. Instead of reloading bombs at the intermediate landing strips, in a Taiwan scenario they would be loading BVR missiles and enough fuel to mount CAPs against incoming PLAAF aircraft. This basing strategy has another plus side in a possible PRC-Taiwan conflict – mobility:
Since hides and strips would be constantly changing, enemy intelligence on their location would be perishable. Perishable intelligence requires a quick response, limiting time available to concentrate forces, plan, and execute an attack. This circumstance reduces the probability for attack success.
This limited response time combined with difficult detection will decrease the ability for the PRC to destroy these dynamic mini-bases through the use of stand-off ballistic missiles. Countering such a tactic would require PLAAF strike fighters in the air over the probable target zone, and as long as the ROCAF is still in the fight, that will not be an easy task.
I know that this is far from the most efficient way to operate an air defense campaign. This probably is as close to guerilla warfare as modern air combat can get, but desperate times would call for desperate measures. Depending on the objectives of the PRC, the ROCAF would only need to be able to hold out until allied reinforcements arrive, or a diplomatic ceasefire is negotiated.
In my previous post I complained that the F-35 was not a real air combat fighter, and by extension, the STOVL F-35B would be even less of one. But for a STOVL platform, right now the F-35B is the only game in town and whether the mission is air-to-air or air-to-ground, it is a big improvement over the current Harriers. But if Taiwan continues to be unsuccessful in getting onto the JSF program, perhaps an indigenous STOVL design concept may make an appearance down the road.
There seems to have been a lot of talk in aviation circles of late regarding the future make up of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Recent delays in issuing RFPs in the long anticipated FX requirement to replace aging F-4s, as well as the development of the separate ATD-X demonstrator program have kept JASDF procurement in the spotlight. And the recent rumblings on the nearby Korean Peninsula only serve to remind everyone of the advantages of a strong conventional deterrence force.
Firstly, I read with great interest the posts on the Asian Skies blog about the ATD-X program - Japan's effort to develop the technology for a 5th generation fighter aircraft. The requirements of the aircraft include AESA radar, TVC engines, and stealth technology. The project will probably remain a solo Japanese affair for the time being, as is common for the nation which has strict self imposed limits on arms exports. But the costs to develop a functioning demonstrator or prototype are expected to be huge, given the technology hurdles and the limited potential for production return. I can understand the desire for Japan to maintain an independent combat aircraft development and manufacturing industry, but at what point do the costs outweigh the benefits? The idea of an international partnership to develop the aircraft solves some of the issues cost-wise, but creates just as many politically.
Japan's desire for the F-22 has been much discussed in the past few years, but with the impending closure of the US production line, is now a moot point. If Japan wants to put a fleet of 5th gen fighters into service, it is stuck with either its independently developed ATD-X (or whatever may spawn from it), or the F-35. Sadly for Japan, neither offers a good alternative to the F-22 however. The ATD-X is just way too costly and risky – look at the development problems, delays and overruns the US has seen with both their 5th gen fighter programs. And the F-35 just isn't a good fit for the mission profile envisioned for the JASDF. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is very much a strike aircraft first, and a fighter aircraft second. Japan's current fighter jet inventory is essentially an air combat force, with a comparatively limited strike capability. This aligns with the purely self-defense mission of Japans military in general. Going on the offensive over enemy territory, dropping bombs on bunkers and tanks while evading SAMs is not a likely JASDF mission. For Japan, the best of the F-35s capabilities are wasted, and the "worst" (according to some at least), are being counted on as their raison d'être.
To me, it seems clear that Japan needs to look at alternative options for their FX winner. Japan needs a fighter aircraft first, strike aircraft second. Japan is an island nation and threats will come from predictable directions. The classic interceptor is the perfect solution really: powerful engines to reach an incoming target aircraft quickly; excellent radar; and BVR missiles. Stealth really isn’t as important in this case. The two favorites right now are probably the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the Typhoon. Both aircraft are modern and in service. Both aircraft were designed, to a greater or lesser degree, with the same interceptor mission profile in mind, and both were brought into service to replace more classic interceptor designs (the F-14 and Tornado F3, et al). Today’s basic Typhoon is arguably better than the F/A-18E/F, but the Super Hornet would probably offer better value for money, and you always need to consider the “buy from America” procurement history of the JASDF. That said, if Japan can get Typhoons with AESA radars, Meteor missiles and even thrust vector control engines, I think it ought to be a clear winner.
That said, the late entry could be the new F-15SE Silent Eagle. We need to wait and see on performance of this aircraft, but it seems to have a lot of potential and in the end it could provide Japan with everything it wants in a familiar package. If the F-15SE offers all that is promised, Europe’s hope for a break into the Japanese market could be dashed.
Nimrod MR2 XV232 has flown to Coventry to be preserved as part of the Air Atlantique Classic Flight. Good news, particularly since I have now learned that this is a record-breaking aircraft, having flown the longest-range aerial reconnaissance operation in history (actually, it broke the record twice in quick succession). Of course we have all heard of that other record-breaking mission during the Falklands War, but I don't think I had ever heard about this one. I wanted to know more about this mission, so I did a little Googling. I apologies for any errors, I know the internet can be a little iffy on accuracy. Most of the information I found came from here, here, here and here. The Flight archives also offer some interesting additonal reading such as here and here.
Like most of the heavy (non-carrier) air assets during the Falklands War, the Nimrods were operating out of Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island, with the first examples arriving on April 6, 1982. However, the Nimrod was not designed with air to air refueling capability. A crash course was put into action to equip eight MR2 aircraft with ex-Vulcan refueling probes, being designated MR2P, to help overcome with the vast distances of the South Atlantic. These aircraft were also famously fitted later on in the war for under wing Sidewinder missiles, making them "the world's largest fighters" (another record, perhaps).
First flight of a probe-equipped (though not fully plumbed) aircraft, XV229, was on April 27, with intensive crew training following. Getting the fuel from the probe into the aircraft fuel tanks themselves also proved a challenge. In the end, two standard fuel bowser hoses ran through the cockpit escape hatch, then down under the cabin floor to the main refuel point under the aircraft. Round-the-clock testing of the modifications followed, with a final endurance limit set at 19 hours. There was apparently one evaluation flight lasting at least 28 hours! The first MR2P to deploy to Wideawake was XV227 on May 7.
On May 15 or 19 (my sources differ), XV232 made it's first record breaking mission, flown by a 201 Sqn crew. The aircraft flew 8300 miles down to a point 150 miles north of Port Stanley, then west until only 60 miles from the coast of Argentina, turning to fly north east, parallel to the coastline. The mission required three air to air refuelings by Victor tankers. Apparently the aircraft flew in daylight at altitudes of 7000 to 12000 ft, and was not yet fitted with the Sidewinders; sounds like a sitting duck - how it survived without getting shot at I have no idea.
The second record-breaking flight was on May 21. XV232, this time flown by a crew from 206 Sqn, flew 8453 miles in 18 hours 50 minutes in search of Argentine warships just prior to the British landings at San Carlos. This distance record has not been broken to this day.
XV232 presumably flew back to the UK for Sidewinder fitting at the end of May, returning to Wideawake on June 5 and became the first Nimrod cleared for operations with the Sidewinder. In the end, the Sidewinders (intended mostly to counter Argentine Boeing 707 sea patrols) were not used during the conflict. Following the war, all Nimrod MR2s were fitted with air to air refueling capability, with the "P" being dropped eventually.
Compared with the Vulcan, the Nimrod story in the Falklands is largely untold to the wider public, which is a shame. From the little I have read today, it sounds like the Nimrod went through many similar challenges as the Vulcans to support operations in the South Atlantic with respect to equipment, training and human endurance, and I'm sure there are many more stories out there. Maybe it's time for Rowland White to write another book...
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