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Top Five Cold War Aircraft

Now I've officially hit my mid-30s, I feel that I should have some sort of crisis or obsession of the High Fidelity variety. Therefore, I shall be listing my various top fives daily, at least until I get bored or forget. Without further ado:

5. BAC TSR-2

The ill-fated British low-altitude nuclear bomber. Cancelled in favour of the F-111 for cost reasons, before the cost escalation on the F-111 really started to bite. "All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right."

4. North American XB-70 Valkyrie

This was one of my earliest fascinations with aircraft that limped off the drawing board, being a Mach 3 high-altitude nuclear bomber with novel drooping wingtips that appeared just as it became clear that high-altitude bombing wasn't practical in the face of improved anti-aircraft missiles. The XB-70 used a stainless steel/titanium/honeycomb material that proved problematic, with fragments of wing leading edges separating at speed during trials. The elaborate landing gear also caused problems and partially failed descend during later trials (the recourse to the backup electricals - also failed - and a last-minute fix using a paperclip to short a circuit breaker is the stuff of legend). The nail in the coffin for the B-70 programme was a mid-air collision with an F-104 Starfighter during the making of a promotional film for General Electric. The collision destroyed the F-104 and tore off both vertical stabilisers and the left wingtip. The pilot (Carl Cross) successfully ejected (using his clamshell rocket ejection pod), but the co-pilot (Al White) caught his arm in the clamshell doors, was unable to eject, and died in the subsequent crash. The XB-70 last flew in 1969.

3. Northrop YB-49

It's a flying wing (a jet-powered development of the YB-35), and it appears in George Pal's The War of the Worlds (indeed, it's the only reason to watch the film). As a nuclear bomber, it had the crucial flaw that it couldn't carry any of the contemporary generation of US nuclear weapons, and it lost out to the B-36.

2. Lockheed A-12 Oxcart (and family)

The A-12 Oxcart was a reconnaissance plane developed by Lockheed for the CIA as a replacement for the U-2, and which formed the basis for the SR-71 Blackbird (originally planned as the B-71, the USAF's replacement for the B-70). I'm fascinated with some of the early proposed variants: the YF-12A interceptor, but particularly the M-21, which mounted the D-21 Mach 3+ reconnaissance drone above the fuselage between the stabilisers (pictured). This proved unsatisfactory, with the final M-21/D-21 test flight ending with the destruction of both aircraft (the D-21 hit the tail section of the M-21). The modified D-21B was later used operationally by being air-launched from a B-52, but the reconnaissance payload was not recovered from any of these four missions.

1. Convair NB-36H

First start with a 50m long and 70m wide airframe, powered by six pusher props driven by radial piston engines, and with a crew of nine and an endurance of forty hours. Then add four jet engines in pods below the wing when it looks like the props aren't giving you enough welly (the B-36J). Realise that your fuselage has enough girth for a parasite fighter to be a workable idea, so play around with the XF-85 Goblin ("The Flying Egg") mounted in the bomb bay. Finally, use it as a testbed for the use of aircraft nuclear propulsion by sticking a 1MW air-cooled reactor in the bomb bay (the NB-36H). The nuclear powered variant, the X-6, never made it off the drawing board, perhaps fortunately. On the plus side, you can get a good look at some B-36s (and Jimmy Stewart) in Strategic Air Command.

Also in the running, but not placing: North American A-5 Vigilante (for the linear bomb bay which would drop its payload during catapult launches), the Saunders-Roe SR.53 rocket interceptor, the Vought SLAM (a Mach 3 terrain follwing cruise missile powered by a nuclear ramjet), and the X-20 Dyna-Soar, which may well appear in a future list.

(edited to add photo supplement)


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Hope its a good one and you should have this Top 5 conversation with J :)

Re: Happy Birthday!

Thanks! (and yes, I probably should)

Happy birthday dude.

A contributor to the death of the TSR-2 was the infamous defence white paper released around 1968, which decided that manned aircraft were obsolete and all current air force roles could be acheived by missiles. The only development project not cancelled was canberra, which was deemed too far advanced to be worth cancelling. We then had to soldier on with that, phantoms (buying some secondhand off the US navy when ours wore out), vulcans, and inheriting buccaneers off the navy when we scrapped ark royal. When Tornado was under development, it was known as the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft or MRCA. One or two wags used to refer to it as "Must Refurbish Canberra Again"....
At least we got to use those glorious afterburning olympus in Concorde..

True enough. TSR-2 also suffered from being the whipping boy for over-running defence projects; it's a fairly open secret that overspends on other projects were attributed to TSR-2 in the belief that because it was already burning pound notes by the ton, a few more wouldn't be noticed.

Besides, if you believe this, certain design decisions on Concorde were made to accommodate the Blue Steel nuclear stand-off bomb.

Should we read anything into the fact that 4 of the 5 of these failed in some fairly fundemental way?

All of them worked, at least to some extent. For example, the B-70 flew, and flew well. It pushed the limits of what could be done with material science at the time, which lead to the skin separation issues; it's likely that these problems would have been fixed in due course. With the B-49, the next generation of nuclear weapons would have been small enough to be carried (and the lessons learned about low radar cross sections carried through to the design of the B-2 Spirit).

The reason I find these aircraft fascinating is that they represent some liminal state on the edge of a counterfactual; they all got off the ground (literally), but for whatever reasons - strategic, political, technological - they were cancelled before they could be carried to their conclusions, leaving us to wonder 'what if?'

What would the Cold War have looked like had the NB-36H experiment been carried forward to the nuclear-powered Convair X-6? How would bombers with endurance measured in days to weeks have affected strategy?

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That was my reasoning when I was in my early twenties (which lasted until I stopped being 24).

Still, I got carded in NYC on my honeymoon (by which time I was 30).

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Oh, I like this top 5.

Surely the TU-95 Bear should be included in this list -- still scrambling RAF fighters, 53 years later!

(Re: the Oxcart, have you read Ben Rich's autobiography, Skunk Works? It's absolutely brilliant.)

Well, it's obviously all Western aircraft because he wants to do an Eastern Bloc Aircraft Top 5 later on. Probably including the Bear, Foxbat and Hind - or it would if I were doing it.

Great selection... but where's the Hawker Hunter, surely the most gorgeous jet ever? Where's the Hawker P.1154 for that matter, everything the Harrier could've been?

I have a monstrous soft-spot for the Vulcan, and for that matter for the Dassault Mirage IV.

And all kids love the F-104, surely? ;)

What about the incredible X-3, or the X-10 Navaho prototype? ;)

Oh and all kids love the Tu-95, surely? And the doomed but lovely Myasischev M-50.....

This was bomber-flavoured - I may do a fighter-flavoured top five in the future.

"All modern aircraft have four dimensions: , length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right."
s/ , / weight, /?

At least the TSR2 project gave Martin Baker an opportunity to develop their ejection seat technology...

Thanks for pictures! I had enough time today just before an exam to noodle around Wikipedia about the Valkyrie, but adding the other pictures is a nice treat. And happy birthday!

Thanks - I'm hoping that some of the future top fives will be slightly less geeky.

Happy birthday, and goodness, I am both impressed and very amused that you know enough about cold war aircraft to have a top 5... Bloody geeks!

There's all sorts of random material squirrelled away in most of us - I daresay you could give a 'top five monotremes' without blinking. In fact, are there even five species of monotreme?

Happy birthday. I got pointed here by lionsphil, since I put up a pic of an X-30 for entirely unrelated reasons. I'll be keeping an eye on this journal for more aerospace-type stuff...

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