The Only German POW To Escape From Canada And Get Back Into The Fight
A POW escaping from captivity has long been one of the most fascinating stories of World War 2. For all the war’s brutality, there seemed to be this complicit understanding in Europe that a captured soldier or airman would do all they could to escape and that was just the game they played.
Certainly, brutal reprisals were common, but when an escapee was captured it almost took on the sense of, “nice try, now back you go.” And while allied POWs tend to get all the Hollywood-style fame for their captivity with movies and television series, there was one German Fighter Ace who actually made his way out of a POW camp in Canada and all the way back to Germany to score 13 additional air to air kills.
This is the story of Franz von Werra and the man who made it back.
A Personality Made for War
Franz von Werra was born in July 1914 to Swiss parents. Growing up, von Werra would demonstrate a boisterous and playboy personality that made him a perfect fit for the role of World War II fighter pilot. In 1936, he joined the Luftwaffe and by 1940, he was fully immersed in the battle for France.
He scored his first victory in May 1940 when he shot down a Hawker Hurricane. He would claim two more bombers before moving on to the Battle of Britain. In one particular battle in August 1940, he claimed a Spitfire and three more Hurricanes as victories along with five more aircraft destroyed on the ground.
Already a fighter Ace, von Werra was starting to gain national attention when he was shot down on September 5, 1940, over Kent. And while it’s not clear whether he was shot down by British pilots or friendly fire, the end result was von Werra crash landing in a field where he was subsequently captured. While it remains to be understood why some POWs embrace their captivity while others attempt to flee at the first sight of opportunity, von Werra would clearly be the latter.
He made his first attempt to escape while on a working detail during the time in which he was held at Maidstone Barracks. This attempt was unsuccessful, and after a period of interrogation, he was sent to POW Camp No. 1 at Grizedale Hall.
He would get his first taste of freedom on October 7th when he jumped over a wall with the help of his fellow German prisoners. For the next five days, von Werra would allude captivity in the English countryside despite a massive search for his whereabouts.
He was found on October 12th completely covered in mud as he attempted to dig a ditch in the ground. He received 21 days of solitary confinement and was sent to No. 13 in Swanwick, Derbyshire. It was here that he would come remarkably close during another escape attempt before being sent to Canada.
Hard to Keep von Werra Around
in December 1940, von Werra and four other POWs had managed to dig a tunnel out of No. 13 and slipped away into the night under the cover of antiaircraft fire and with the aid of their fellow POWs. Somehow they had come into possession of forged documents to aid in their escape. And while the other four POWs were quickly caught, the ingenious von Werra had another plan.
Somehow he had convinced British citizens that he was actually a downed Dutch pilot trying to make his way back to his unit. Remarkably, he made it all the way back to the aerodrome at RAF Hucknall where his plan was almost completed.
When being questioned by a squadron leader who left to check on his story, von Werra quickly ran to the nearest hanger and hopped in a plane after convincing a mechanic he was cleared for flight. When he was found out, he was arrested at gunpoint as he sat in the cockpit attempting to learn the controls of the craft perhaps just moments from freedom. At this point, the British thought that von Werra might be better off in Canada.
Along with many other German POWs, he was ordered to be taken to a POW camp on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Canada. However, von Werra would accept this new challenge and immediately began planning his escape. In January 1941, the United States was still a neutral power. So when the opportunity presented itself, von Werra leaped off of a prisoner train and made his way to the United States.
Making his way across the frozen St. Lawrence River, he arrived in New York State and turned himself over to the police. Not yet at war, the United States simply charged him with entering the country illegally. As a result, he contacted the German Consul who paid his bail and gave him his temporary freedom.
And while the US and Canada were discussing extradition, the German vice-consul took care of his fighter Ace and helped him make his way to Mexico. Once over the border, von Werra would begin the long journey that would take him from Brazil to Spain, to Italy and finally back in Germany in April of 1941.
Back in the Fight
Once back in Germany, von Werra was recognized as a hero by Adolf Hitler for having made his way back to the fight and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Von Werra would eventually be assigned to the Eastern front where he would go on to score 13 additional air to air kills over the skies of Russia.
It seemed von Werra was a man destined for greatness in the war, but a tragic accident would end his storied career.
After his unit returned to Germany in order to rest and re-equip with new aircraft, von Werra’s BF 109F-4 experienced a catastrophic engine failure and crashed into the sea.
His body was never found and he would go down in the history as the only German POW to escape Canada and return to the war. His story would get a little bit of the Hollywood treatment be made into a 1957 film aptly named, The One That Got Away.
The Second World War saw the combatants race to outdo one another in designing, manufacturing, and fielding, ever improved weapons in order to gain an edge over their foes. Nowhere was that rivalry more fierce and marked than in the air, where the technological state of art progressed in leaps and bounds, with steady and rapid improvements in plane designs, metallurgy, and engines that grew in power and efficiency with each passing year. The war saw fighter aircraft progress from piston driven planes at war’s beginning, to the dawn of the jet age by war’s end. Following, in rough chronological order, are ten of the greatest fighter aircraft of that conflict.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
The Messerschmitt Bf 109, officially shortened to Bf 109, was the iconic German fighter of WWII. An argument could be made that the Bf 109 was the most successful fighter platform of the war. Which is not to say that the 109 was the best fighter of the war, but that its design was the most solid and serviceable of WWII.
With initial plans dating back to 1934, first prototype flown in 1935, and the first model entering operational service in 1937 and seeing combat in the Spanish Civil War, the Bf 109 was the only fighter, aside from the Spitfire, that was deployed in front line service at war’s beginning in 1939, and with incremental improvements, remained in front line service, effective and competitive against newer fighters, until war’s end. The prototype that flew in 1935 was the world’s first low wing, retractable wheels, all metal monoplane fighter – a basic design subsequently used by all sides during WWII.
At its most basic, the essence of the Bf 109 was to take the smallest feasible airframe, and attach to it the most powerful engine possible. The design had flaws, such as a cramped cockpit, a poor rear view, and a narrow undercarriage that rendered ground handling hazardous to inexperienced pilots. Moreover, small size translated into limited fuel capacity, reducing its range – which proved problematic during the Battle of Britain, when Bf 109s were typically limited to 15 minutes’ worth of fighting over Britain, before dwindling fuel forced them to disengage and fly back home.
Nonetheless, the basic concept of small airframe married to big engine proved successful, allowing as it did for progressive upgrades as more powerful engines became available, and allowing the Bf 109 to remain competitive throughout the war. The adaptable design allowed the plane to progress from the 109D model in 1939, with a top speed of 320 m.p.h., to the 109K model at war’s end, capable of 452 m.p.h.
Eric Hartman, the war’s top ace with 352 kills, flew the Bf 109. Indeed, the top three aces of the war, with over 900 kills between them, flew 109s, as did the top scoring ace against the Western Allies. In addition to the interceptor and escort role for which it had been originally designed, the 109 was sufficiently adaptable to serve in other roles, including ground attack, and reconnaissance. With nearly 34,000 manufactured between 1936 and 1945, the Bf 109 was the most produced fighter aircraft in history.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
A light and nimble fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the first carrier based fighter capable of besting its land based opponents, and was Japan’s main fighter of WWII. The Zero’s design sacrificed protection for speed, maneuverability, and long range, on the theory that superior speed and maneuverability were protections in their own right, with long range an added bonus. The A6M came as a shock to Allied pilots when first encountered, because it could outmaneuver every airplane it faced at the time.
A better dogfighter than anything the Allies had at the start of the Pacific War, the Zero’s superior performance, especially in the hands of Japan’s elite naval aviators, exceeded anything the Allies had hitherto expected from the Japanese. In the war’s early days, Japanese naval aviators flying Zeroes achieved a 12:1 kill ratio.
To counter the Zero’s advantages, American pilots adopted team work tactics such as the “Thach Weave” which required pilot pairs to work in tandem, or the “Boom and Zoom”, in which American pilots engaged the Zero only in diving attacks, as the acceleration of their heavier planes in a dive allowed them to flee if the diving attack failed.
While holding considerable advantages in maneuverability and speed, the Zero’s lack of protection for either the pilot or the fuel tanks proved a steadily mounting disadvantage as the war progressed, since the heavier and more rugged American fighters could absorb considerable punishment from Zeroes, while a single machine gun burst from the American plane could disintegrate a Zero.
By 1943, attrition had thinned the ranks of Japan’s elite aviators, and the Japanese Navy’s training pipeline could not produce enough replacements of similar caliber. As a result, there were fewer and fewer Japanese pilots capable of extracting the most out of the Zero’s advantages while minimizing its disadvantages. Which was bad news for the Japanese, as the quality of American aviators was increasing, due to wartime experience as well as an extensive training program that produced capable aviators at a rate Japan could not match. That was exacerbated by the introduction of new American fighters, such as the F4U Corsair and the F6F Hellcat, that were a significant improvement over their predecessors, and proved more than a match for the Zero, with greater firepower, armor, speed, and similar maneuverability.
By 1944 the Zero was obsolescent and rapidly becoming obsolete, but it remained in front line service because the Japanese faced production difficulties in fielding a replacement. From its heyday at war’s beginning when it ruled the skies of the Pacific while flown by elite pilots, A6Ms were reduced by war’s end to flying kamikaze missions under the controls of barely trained novices.
A graceful aircraft whose wide elliptical wings, curves, and rounded components flowed smoothly into each other in an elegant whole, the Supermarine Spitfire was a masterpiece of aerodynamic engineering, and perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing airplane of the WWII. It was considered remarkably easy to handle, and that, combined with its physical appeal and superb performance, turned it into a legend.
Moreover, the Spitfire was remarkably durable. As Spitfire pilot John Vader wrote: “Spitfires have hit the ground, touched the sea, bashed through trees, cut telegraph and high tension wires, collided in the air, been shot to pieces, had rudders and parts of wings fall off, and have yet made safe landings, with or without wheels.”
Designed as a high performance short range interceptor to supplement the Royal Air Force Fighter Command’s mainstay, the Hawker Hurricane, the Spitfire combined lethality with beauty and toughness, and proved a superb defensive fighter in the Battle of Britain, July to October, 1940. During that dark summer, the Spitfire emerged as the iconic symbol of British defiance as that country stood alone against the German juggernaut.
Although the RAF had more Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain than it did Spitfires, the Spitfire’s superior performance resulted in a lower attrition rate and a higher kill to loss ratio. As a result, during German raids on Britain, Spitfire squadrons were generally tasked with engaging Luftwaffe fighters and keeping them occupied, while flights of Hurricanes dove in to savage the now undefended German bombers.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Spitfire came during that fray, when Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, growing frustrated by the inability to crush British resistance, berated a gathering of his exhausted and weary fighter commanders, taking them to task for failing to defeat the enemy despite a numerical superiority over the RAF. When he reportedly asked just what more he could do to speed up victory, one of them replied bitterly: “Give me a squadron of Spitfires!” After the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire began to replace the Hurricane as the backbone of the RAF’s Fighter Command for the remainder of the war.
The plane’s design proved sufficiently rugged and adaptable to permit the use of increasingly powerful engines as the war progressed. That led to a steady increase in the Spitfire’s performance and capabilities throughout the conflict. Aside from machine guns, different versions were equipped with cannons, rockets, or bombs. In addition to its primary role as interceptor, the Spitfire successfully served in other roles, such as fighter-bomber, reconnaissance, and trainer. It was the most produced British aircraft of the war, with over 20,000 manufactured during the conflict.
A low wing fighter powered by a BWW air cooled radial engine, the Focke-Wulf FW-190 was first ordered in 1937, intended as insurance against possible shortages in the liquid cooled Daimler engines that powered the Luftwaffe’s mainstay fighter, the Bf 109. As things turned out, once it was introduced in late 1941, the backup quickly stole the show. The FW-190 proved more rugged than the 109, as its huge radial engine, mounted up front, acted as extra shielding for the pilot, and could absorb far more damage than the Bf 109’s liquid cooled engine and still function. It also proved superior to the 109 in most tasks, except high altitude dog fighting. Thus, the Focke-Wulf ended up replacing the Messerschmitt as Germany’s main fighter, with over 20,000 produced by war’s end.
Maneuverable, and heavily armed with a standard configuration of four 20mm cannon plus two machine guns, the FW-190 proved an excellent airplane, and during the middle war years, was the best air to air fighter, asserting an ascendancy over enemy fighters that lasted until the Spitfire IX restored parity in July, 1942.
However, the Spitfire lacked the range to penetrate deep into Reich territory. Thus, when US Bomber Command entered the fray and began conducting daylight raids into Germany, the FW-190s’ heavy armaments rendered it well suited for the role of bomber destroyer. Wading into the bomber formations, FW-190s inflicted heavy losses and established an ascendancy over German skies that lasted until long range fighter escorts finally became available to shepherd US bombers in 1944.
In addition to fighter duties, the FW-190 platform was well suited to other roles, such as reconnaissance, ground attack, fast light bomber capable of carrying a respectable 4000 bomb load, and when equipped with 37mm cannons, an exceptional tank buster. The FW-190s supremacy over Germany’s skies was first challenged by the appearance of P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts, whose range was extended by the use of drop tanks, enabling them to escort American bombers to those targets in Germany that fell within their enhanced range, and at least part of the way to those targets deeper inside Germany that lay beyond.
The FW-190’s radial engine could not hope to match the turbo supercharged engines of those American fighters at high altitudes, and so FW-190s were forced to retreat deeper into Germany, effectively abandoning those parts within Allied escort fighter range. Alternatively, FW-190s would shadow the bomber formations and wait until the escorting Thunderbolts or Lightnings reached their maximum range and had to turn back, before pouncing on the now undefended bombers.
The appearance of the P-51 Mustang, which had the range to escort US bombers to targets anywhere inside German held territory, put the FW-190 at a permanent disadvantage and ended its ascendancy as a bomber destroyer. The introduction of the liquid cooled FW-190D variant in September of 1944 restored some degree of parity, but by then it was too late. German factories did not produce enough FW-190Ds to go around, and by the time they came out, the Luftwaffe had suffered severe pilot attrition, so there was a shortage of experienced flyers capable of taking full advantage of the FW-190D’s capabilities.
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
With its distinctive twin booms on either side of a central pod containing the cockpit and armaments, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning is one of the most recognizable airplanes of WWII. It was also the only successful twin engine fighter of the war, with over 10,000 produced during the conflict.
The Lightning’s prototype was the world’s fastest airplane when it was first introduced in 1939, and it remained one of the fastest climbers until war’s end. Operationally deployed in 1941, the P-38 saw service in both the European and Pacific theaters, but excelled more in the Pacific, where its long range capabilities were well suited to the vast distances characteristic of that theater.
The placement of the Lightning’s machine guns on the plane’s nose was unusual among American fighters of WWII, which relied on wing mounted machine guns instead. While wing mounted guns were calibrated to shoot at crisscrossing trajectories of between 100 to 250 yards, the Lightning’s straight ahead gun arrangement gave it a significantly longer useful range: P-38s were able to reliably deliver effective and aimed concentrated machine gun fire at a range of up to 1000 yards. America’s top two aces of World War II, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, both flew P-38s.
The P-38’s most famous mission was Operation Vengeance, which highlighted its excellence as a long range fighter, and resulted in the death of Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When American codebreakers intercepted and deciphered Japanese signals that he was scheduled to fly from Rabaul to the island of Bougainville on April 18, 1943, a flight of 16 Lightnings was dispatched from Guadalcanal on a 600 mile roundabout trip to intercept and shoot down Yamamoto’s airplane, followed by a 400 mile straight line return flight to Guadalcanal. At the time, only P-38s were capable of making such a 1000 mile round trip.
Skimming the ocean at less than 50 feet above the waves in order to avoid detection, the operation worked like precision clockwork. The P-38s arrived at Bougainville and climbed to altitude just as Yamamoto’s plane and its escorts arrived over the island, reaching the planned interception point within one minute of the admiral. The Lightnings fell upon the Japanese, and Yamamoto’s plane was shot down, along with another transport plane plus two escorting Zeroes, for the loss of one P-38.
Lightnings remained America’s primary long range fighter until the arrival of the P-51 Mustang. Versatile, the P-38 was used not only in the long range fighter role, but also served effectively in reconnaissance, dive bombing and level bombing, as well as ground attack.
A lightened upgrade of previous Yakovlev fighters, the Yak-9 was initially deployed in October of 1942, and saw its first combat soon thereafter during the Battle of Stalingrad. Standard armament was a nose mounted 20mm cannon, plus one or two heavy machine guns. It was used mainly to support ground troops by shielding them from German air attacks, and strafing enemy troops when feasible.
In contrast to what came before, Soviet pilots considered the Yak-9 to be the equal of the German Bf 109 and FW-190 fighters, especially at lower altitudes where the light Yak-9, although inferior to the Germans in armaments, proved their superior in speed and maneuverability and rate of climb, thus allowing it to excel in low level dog fighting. It also proved remarkably durable, able to absorb significant damage and punishment, and still make it back home.
The light fighter’s markedly improved performance over that of its predecessors was instrumental in restoring Soviet pilots’ confidence after the catastrophic losses they had suffered in the first year of the war, caused by poor training and tactics, but more importantly, by inferior airplanes that were no match for the modern fighters flown by the Luftwaffe.
The restoration of its fighter pilots’ confidence in their equipment finally allowed the Red Air Force to begin clawing its way back up and gradually stabilize the situation on the Eastern Front, as the Soviet air arm slowly replaced the marked aerial inferiority exhibited against the Germans with aerial parity, then superiority, and by war’s end, supremacy. After its successful introduction over the skies of Stalingrad, the Yak-9 gradually became the Soviet Union’s main fighter of the war, and by 1944, there were more Yak-9s in service than all other Soviet fighters combined.
As with other fighters that did particularly well in the war, the Yak-9’s success was due in no small to the versatility of its basic design, allowing for steady improvements as the war progressed, and for utilization in a variety of roles. In addition to a defensive fighter, the adaptable Yak-9s were also put to uses such as reconnaissance, long range bomber escorts, nighttime fighters, armed with 37mm or 45mm cannons and used as tank busters, general ground attacks, and when equipped with bomb loads of up to 1000 pounds, the planes could also serve as light bombers. The Yakovlev Yak-9 was the most produced fighter in the history of the Red Air Force, with over 16,000 rolling out of Soviet factories.
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
Nicknamed “The Jug” and exceptionally huge by the standards of WWII, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the heaviest fighter of the conflict. Clocking in at 8 tons when fully loaded in its ground attack role, and 10,000 pounds empty, it was 50 percent heavier than the P-51 Mustang, and nearly twice as heavy as the Spitfire. Notwithstanding its weight, the P-47 was fast, capable of matching the Mustang’s 440 m.p.h. top speed, with one late war variant reaching 473 m.p.h. However, it had shorter range, at 800 miles, than the Mustang’s nearly 1600 miles.
Ironically, the P-47 had initially been conceived of as a light interceptor, but between proposal and prototype, requirements and minds changed, and a heavy fighter emerged. Initial designs called for a small fighter with a liquid cooled engine, but when the Army raised concerns, designers turned to an air cooled, and exceptionally powerful for its day, engine. The powerful engine meant the plane no longer needed to be small, and so its size grew, resulting in a heavy fighter with a respectable range.
While the increased weight reduced the P-47’s rate of climb, that only mattered for an interceptor, and by 1943 when Thunderbolts first saw combat, there was no significant enemy bomber threat that urgently required a fighter with interceptor characteristics. Moreover, the extra weight had its own benefits, increasing the P-47’s durability, and making it faster in the dive – a great asset that enabled Thunderbolts to overtake fleeing enemy fighters, or to break off contact and flee themselves if necessary.
Deployed to Europe in 1942 and seeing its first combat in 1943, the Thunderbolt was utilized primarily in bomber escort duties, and gained a reputation for ruggedness because its robust airframe and air cooled radial engine allowed it to absorb significant combat damage and still bring plane and pilot back home.
The P-47 was gradually phased out from its bomber escort role as the longer ranged P-51 Mustangs began to arrive. The Thunderbolt then found a new niche as a ground attack fighter, in which role it excelled, wreaking havoc on airfields, locomotives, and road traffic. Indeed, when fully loaded in its fighter-bomber configuration, a single P-47 could deliver about half the payload of a B-17 heavy bomber. And when equipped with rockets, a salvo from a P-47 was equivalent to a battery of 155 mm howitzers.
The Thunderbolt was the most used American fighter of the war, with nearly 16,000 manufactured. During its production run, improvements were made, with each modification adding to the P-47’s speed, power, range, and maneuverability. During the final year and a half of the war, P-47s comprised nearly half of all US fighters in groups posted overseas. P-47s flew over half a million sorties, during which they shot down about 4000 enemy airplanes from the skies and destroyed another 3000 on the ground, as well as 6000 armored vehicles, 9000 locomotives, and 86,000 trucks.
Grumman F6F Hellcat
Early in the Pacific War, American naval aviators were shocked upon discovering that their standard fighter, the F4F Wildcat, was outclassed in many ways by the faster, more maneuverable, and longer ranged Japanese Zero. Ameliorative operational procedures and tactics were adopted to counter the Zero’s advantages and play up to the Wildcat’s strengths, but it was clear that such measures were a stopgap, and that what was really needed was a new and improved fighter
Grumman, which had been working on a successor to the F4F prior to America’s entry into the war, sped things up after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and took what became the F6F Hellcat from the experimental stage to operational employment in a mere 18 months. Featuring foldable wings for easier storage in less space, thus allowing aircraft carriers to carry a greater number of fighters, the F6F was faster, more powerful, more maneuverable, and longer ranged than its predecessor, and outclassed the enemy’s Zeroes in every way except maneuverability at low speed. The Hellcat saw its first combat in August of 1943, and proved such so successful that, by 1944, it had become the Navy’s standard carrier based fighter.
12,275 Hellcats were produced during the war, and they were the main platform which the US Navy used to clear the Pacific skies of enemy planes. A versatile and rugged aircraft, F6Fs spearheaded America’s advance across the Pacific, conducting fighter sweeps over enemy airfields, flying combat air patrols to shield the forces below from aerial attack, and performing ground attacks in support of soldiers and Marines.
Standard armament was six .50 caliber machines, but some planes substituted a pair of 20mm canon for two of the machine guns. F6Fs could also carry a pair of 1000 pound bombs, but its most destructive load for ground attacks were half a dozen 5 inch rockets, whose salvoes exceeded a destroyer’s broadside.
Although it did not enter service until the final two years of the conflict, the F6F downed 5156 enemy aircraft. Nicknamed “The Ace Maker” for the seeming ease with which its pilots achieved that status, with 307 Hellcat pilots becoming aces during the war, the plane achieved an enviable 19:1 kill ratio, and accounted for 75 percent of the US Navy’s air to air victories.
North American P-51 Mustang
The North American P-51 Mustang was perhaps the only airplane to seriously rival the Spitfire for the title of most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing fighter of WWII. When it came to performance, however, the Mustang had no serious rival for the title of best fighter of the war, embodying as it did the pinnacle of propeller driven fighter technology, and proving itself a credible match against even the revolutionary Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.
The Mustang was initially designed for the RAF, and the plane that was manufactured in accordance with the British buyers’ specifications, and delivered in October of 1941, was mediocre. Equipped with an underpowered engine, those early Mustangs could not compete on an equal footing with German fighters at high altitude. As such, the RAF’s Fighter Command saw no use for the plane, and it was relegated to tactical reconnaissance and ground attack duties.
It was not until 1943, after the US Eighth Air Force joined the bombing campaign against Germany and suffered horrendous losses during raids deep into Reich territory beyond the range of fighter escorts, that the Mustang got a second look. The front line American fighters at the time, the P-38s and P-47s, had shortcomings as bomber escorts – most important of which was the lack of sufficient range to accompany the bombers all the way to targets deep into Germany. After evaluation, it was determined that the Mustang, if modified to carry additional fuel internally and fitted with external fuel tanks, would have the necessary range to escort the bombers anywhere in the European Theater of Operations.
That fixed half of the problem: transforming the Mustang into a fighter capable of escorting American bombers all the way to targets deep inside Germany. Fixing the other half of the problem – improving the Mustang’s performance so it could beat back German fighters and actually protect the bombers it would now escort – transformed the Mustang into a legend.
What had kept the Mustang mediocre was a mediocre engine that performed poorly at high altitudes. Equipped with that stock engine, the initial Mustangs had a top speed of 390 miles per hour, and an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet – any higher, and their performance suffered. Then a British test pilot had the bright idea of replacing the Mustang’s stock engine with the Rolls Royce engine used in the Spitfire IX, and the results were immediate and dramatic, allowing the Mustang to realize its potential, and transforming it from a mediocrity to the war’s best fighter. From a 390 m.p.h. top speed, the Rolls Royce engined Mustang zoomed to 440 m.p.h. (with later models reaching 490 m.p.h.), and from an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet, the improved Mustang soared to 42,000 feet.
The test results were passed on to the Americans, and converted Mustangs, equipped with the Rolls Royce engine and now designated the P-51B, began rolling out of factories in June of 1943, and by late 1943, P-51s were in place and ready for action in Europe. When they entered action in 1944, the P-51s broke the Luftwaffe’s back.
The Bf 109s had good engines, capable of performing well at the high altitudes in which the bombers flew. But to actually down the rugged B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, the 109s needed to be fitted with heavy armaments. The problem was that putting heavy armaments on the Bf 109s’ light airframe negatively impacted their performance, making them that much more vulnerable to the bombers’ escorting P-51s, which were unencumbered by heavy armaments, and armed and optimized instead for the task of killing fighters.
The FW-190s had it even worse than the 109s when they tried to penetrate the protective screen of P-51s in order to get at the bombers. While the 109s at least had engines that were suited for high altitude dog fighting, the FW-190s did not have even that, and their radial engines were no match for the Mustangs’ Rolls Royce engines at high altitudes. Between that, and the dilemma of needing heavy armaments in order to shoot down heavy bombers, even as those heavy armaments reduced their ability to take on enemy fighters not similarly encumbered, the FW-190s found themselves at a severe disadvantage against the P-51s.
After months of heavy losses to the Mustangs, and unsustainable attrition that bled the German fighter arm white, the Luftwaffe effectively ceded the skies over Germany to the P-51 escorted bombers, shadowing the formations but mostly shying away from contact, pouncing instead on stragglers suffering mechanical malfunctions or damaged by flak.
The P-51s begrudged the Germans even that, and would not allow the once proud Luftwaffe to skulk and scavenge in peace. If the German fighters would not come up to fight them, then they would go down to find and fight the German fighters.
Appointed to command of the Eighth Air Force, Jimmy Doolittle, of Tokyo raid fame, was not content with simply protecting the bombers. Instead, he sought to achieve aerial supremacy over German skies. To do that, he changed the orders that had required escorting fighters to stick with the bombers at all times, and freed them to sweep far ahead of the formations to engage any Germans they could find. Additionally, once the bombers had hit their targets and began their return trip, the P-51s were free to leave the formations and “hit the deck” on their way back home, descending from their high altitudes and engaging any planes they came across, strafing German airfields, attacking trains or road traffic, engaging any targets of opportunity they spotted, and otherwise provoking and daring the Luftwaffe to come out and do something about it. In the runup to the D-Day landings, some P-51 groups were released from bomber escort duties altogether, and unleashed on German airfields instead. Such aggressive tactics finally crippled the Luftwaffe.
The P-51s proved such a success, and were such a marked improvement over the P-38s and P-47s, that by the end of 1944, 14 out of the Eighth Air Force’s 15 fighter groups had switched from Lightnings and Thunderbolts to Mustangs. Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Mustangs came from the Luftwaffe’s chief, Hermann Goering, who reportedly said “I knew the jig was up” when he saw P-51s over Berlin.
Even the arrival of futuristic German airplanes late in the war failed to wrest aerial supremacy from the P-51s. The most formidable of those planes, the Messerschmitt Me 262, was kept in check by a shortage of both fuel and experienced pilots, as well as by the expedients of attacking their airfields and strafing them on the ground, or keeping fighter air patrols near their airfields, and catching them at their most vulnerable when they were taking off or landing.
Messerschmitt Me 262
Flying at 540 miles per hour, and armed with four 30 mm cannon, the Messerschmitt Me 262 was faster and better armed than any other fighter in WWII. Its arrival ushered the dawn of the jet age and revolutionized aerial warfare, but it came too late to stave off Germany’s defeat.
First flown in 1942, technical difficulties, coupled with inadequate support or understanding of its potential by high ranking German leaders, delayed the Me 262’s deployment until 1944. E.g.; Goering thought the war would be won with the planes Germany already possessed, rendering the investment in projects such as the Me 262 superfluous, while Hitler gummed up the works by supporting the development of the jet as a fast bomber rather than an interceptor.
The Me 262 first saw combat with an experimental trial unit in July of 1944, but it was not until November of 1944 that the jet fighter first attacked one of the bomber formations that by then were roaming Germany’s skies at will. Results were mixed, with two escorting P-51s shot down but no bombers, for the loss of one jet fighter and the death of its pilot, an irreplaceable Luftwaffe ace with over 250 kills.
The first Me 262 wing was formed in January of 1945, by which point Allied armies were already on German home soil in both the Eastern and Western fronts. The Me 262 units’ effectiveness was hampered by organizational flaws, a dearth of experienced pilots capable of taking full advantage of the plane’s capabilities, lack of fuel for adequate training, and frequent Allied attacks on their airfields.
It was not until March of 1945 that a glimpse of what might have been was seen, when Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland formed an Me 262 unit comprised of elite and highly experienced pilots. Mounting coordinated large scale jet attacks on the bomber formations, the results were impressive, if too little and too late. In the first such attack, 37 Me 262s took on a formation of over 1000 bombers, protected by over 600 fighter escorts, and shot down twelve bombers and one fighter, for the loss of only 3 jets.
While such a 4:1 kill ratio was impressive, it was a pinprick, and Germany went down to total defeat a few weeks later. But if more Me 262s had been available a year earlier, and had been organized into units staffed with experienced pilots rather than novices as was too often the case, a 4:1 kill rate could have seriously complicated matters for the Allies, and the course of the war, if not its final outcome, might have gone differently.
The Allies, aware of the Me 262’s disruptive potential, devoted considerable resources to contain it. Allied fighters were at a severe disadvantage in taking on the jets at high altitude, as they were significantly faster than any piston driven plane. However, the Me 262s were vulnerable at takeoff and landing, and parked on their airfields they were sitting ducks. So Allied fighters patrolled the vicinity of Me 262 airfields to try and catch them taking off or landing, and bombed them with mounting frequency. Shooting them down might have been difficult, but destroying them on the ground and wrecking the infrastructure needed to send them up in the first place was well within Allied capabilities.
747 Pilot Takes Stunning Photos From His Cockpit proves they Do.
The flying Dutchman, aka JPC Van Heijst, has probably the most awesome office on the planet. And although we’ve already seen some of the amazing photos he’s taken, we still haven’t seen the actual spectacle these pilots witness, with all the lights and switches in the way. Until now.
Being the first officer with Cargolux, Van Heijst flies Boeing 747s around the world: “Seeing the entire world in my job, I feel privileged to be in a position to capture many different parts of the planet through my camera and immortalize the beauty of the places I visit,” he told Daily Mail.
And while sure, not many of us can relate to this kind of ‘office’ experience, we’d love to see what sort of working environment you find yourself in daily. So feel free to share your office pics in the comments!
The thought of traveling at speeds of 6,000+ MPH may seem farfetched to many, but keep in mind that at during points in our fairly history, self-powered carriages and humans taking to the skies also seemed farfetched to everybody except those working to bring those ideas to life.
The most obvious uses for these scramjet engines are of military origin, such as having missiles and bombers capable of speeds far exceeding those currently in production. The technology could also be sued to deliver astronauts to the space station like we used to do with the Space Shuttle.
However, as is the case with nearly all military technology, the benefits would certainly trickle down to the consumer market, with the obvious use being hyper-fast commercial aircraft. At nearly 5,000 MPH, a commercial jet could fly from New York to LA in about a half hour, which is admittedly almost impossible to even comprehend.
Want to know the fastest plane in the world? First, let’s take a look at the other contenders:
20. F-117 Nighthawk
The F-1117 Nighthawk is a single-seat, twin-engine stealth attack aircraft that was developed by Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works division. The plane made its maiden flight in 1981 and achieved initial operating status in 1983, but was operated in secrecy until 1988.
Top Speed: 617MPH Price: $111,200,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 40.36hours
The F-1117 was strictly a ground-attack aircraft during the Gulf War of 1991. It also took part in the conflict in Yugoslavia in 1999, where one of the planes was shot down by a surface-to-air missile and became the only Nighthawk to be lost in combat. The U.S. Air Force officially retired the F-117 in April 2008.
19. B-2 Spirit
The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, also known as the Stealth Bomber, is an American heavy strategic bomber. The B-2 Spirit was developed through the “Advanced Technology Bomber” (ATB) project during the Carter administration and was designed with low observable stealth technology.
Top Speed: 630 MPH Price: $737,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 39.53 hours
The cost of each aircraft in 1997 was $737 but the procurement costs averaged $929 million per aircraft for the spare parts, equipment and software support. Because of its considerable capital and operating costs, the project was controversial in the U.S. Congress and among the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The B-2 is capable of all-altitude attack missions up to 50,000 feet and was used during the Kosovo War in 1999. The B-2 Spirit also saw further service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
18. F-35 Lightning II
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole fighters undergoing final development and testing by the United States. It is descended from the X-35, which was the winning design of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.
Top Speed: 1,200 MPH Price: $106,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 20.75 hours
The F-35 has three main models that are designed to perform ground attack, aerial reconnaissance, and air defense missions.The first prototype was launched in December 2006 and as of November 2014, 115 models have been built.
The F-35 program is the most expensive military weapons system in history, and it has been the object of much criticism from those inside and outside government. While development is principally funded by the United States, additional funding have been provided by partner nations that are either NATO members or close U.S. allies. The first prototype was launched in December 2006 and as of November 2014, 115 models have been built.
17. Convair F- 106
The Convair F-106 Delta Dart was the primary all-weather interceptor aircraft of the United States Air Force from the 1960s through the 1980s. Designed as the so-called “Ultimate Interceptor”, it proved to be the last dedicated interceptor in U.S. Air Force service to date.
Top Speed: 1,526 MPH Price: $25,100,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 16.4 Hours
As the ultimate interceptor program of the 50s, the F-106 was used as a specialized all-weather missile-armed interceptor to shoot down bombers. The first prototype took flight on December 26, 1956 at the Edwards Air Force Base. Three years later, Major Joseph W. Rogers set a world speed record of 1,525.96 mph.
Although contemplated for use in the Vietnam War the F-106 never saw combat, nor was it exported to foreign users. The F-106 served in the continental US, Alaska, and Iceland, as well as for brief periods in Germany and South Korea. It was gradually retired in the 80s. It was replaced by QF-106 drone conversions until 1998 under the Pacer Six Program.
16. Sukhoi PAK FA T-50
The Sukhio PAK FAT-50 is a stealthy, single-seat, twin-engine jet fighter, and will be the first operational aircraft in Russian service to use stealth technology. The multirole fighter is designed for air superiority and attack roles and intended to be the successor to the MiG-29 and Su-27.
Top Speed: 1,520 MPH Price: $50,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 16.38hours
The T-50’s maiden flight was repeatedly postponed from early 2007 after encountering unspecified technical problems. In August 2009, Alexander Zelin acknowledged that problems with the engine and in technical research remained unsolved.
The T-50 prototype first flew on January 29, 2010 and the first production aircraft is slated for delivery to the Russian Air Force starting in late 2016 or early 2017. The T-50 is expected to have a service life of up to 35 years.
15. Sukhoi Su-27
The Sukhol Su-27 is a twin-engine fighter plane built by the former U.S.S.R., in an attempt to outdo similarly advanced American aircraft. The plane made its first flight in May 1977, and officially entered service with the Soviet Air Force in 1985.
Top Speed: 1,550 MPH Price: $27,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 16.03 hours
The aircraft can reach a maximum supersonic speed of Mach 2.35 (1,550 mph, or 2,500 km/h), which is 2.35 times the speed of sound. In addition, there were several variants of the Su-27 including the Su-30 which is a two-seat, dual-role fighter for all-weather, air-to-air and air-to-surface deep interdiction missions and the Flanker-D, a naval fleet defense interceptor for use on aircraft carriers, and the Flanker-E improved air superiority and multi-role fighter
The Su-27 earned a reputation of being one of the most capable fighters of its time. To this day they remain in military use in Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine.
14. F-4 Phantom
The F-4 Phantom was the superior fighter jet during the Vietnam War. The tandem two-seat, twin-engine, all-weather, long-range supersonic jet interceptor aircraft/fighter-bomber originally developed for the United States Navy by McDonnell Aircraft.
Top Speed: 1,607 MPH Price: $17,883,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 15.6 Hours
The Phantom is a large fighter with a top speed of over Mach 2.2 and can carry more than 18,000 pounds of weapons on nine external hardpoints, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and various bombs. Like other interceptors of its time, the F-4 was designed without an internal cannon.
During the Vietnam War, the F-4 became important in the ground-attack andaerial reconnaissance roles. The F-4 Phantom II remained in use by the U.S. in the reconnaissance and Wild Weasel (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) roles in the 1991 Gulf War, finally leaving service in 1996. It was also the only aircraft used by both U.S. flight demonstration teams: the USAF Thunderbirds (F-4E) and the US Navy Blue Angels (F-4J).
13. F-111 Aardvark
The F-111 Aardvark was a tactical strike aircraft developed in the 1960s by General Dynamics. The two-person plane first entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 1967, and was used for strategic bombing campaigns, gathering reconnaissance and performing electronic warfare.
Top Speed: 1,650 MPH Price: $25,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 15.06 Hours
The F-111 was able to fly at speeds of Mach 2.5 (1,650 mph, or 2,655 km/h), or 2.5 times the speed of sound. Unfortunately, it also suffered a variety of problems during initial development. Several of its intended roles, such as an aircraft carrier-based naval interceptor with the F-111B, failed to materialize.
The F-111 Aardvark was widely used during the Vietnam War, but was phased out of use by the U.S. Air Force in 1998. It was replaced in USAF service by the F-15E Strike Eagle for medium-range precision strike missions, while the supersonic bomber role has been assumed by the B-1B Lancer.
12. F-15 Eagle
The F-15 Eagle is a twin-engine tactical fighter designed by McDonnell Douglas in 1967. The all-weather plane is designed to gain and maintain air superiority over enemy forces during aerial combat, which involves holding dominant positions in the sky.
Top Speed: 1,650 MPH Price: $27,900,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 15.06 Hours
The F-15 Eagle first flew in July 1972, and officially entered service in the U.S. Air Force in 1976. The F-15 is capable of flying at speeds greater than Mach 2.5 (1,650 mph, or 2,655 km/h), and considered one of the most successful planes ever created.
Among the most successful modern fighter, the F-15 Eagle has seen over 100 victories and no losses in aerial combat. Because of this, the F-15 Eagle is expected to continue flying in the U.S. Air Force beyond 2025. It has also been exported to a number of foreign nations, including Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
11. Mikoyan Ye-152
The Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-150 family was a series of prototype single-seat fighter/interceptor aircraft designed and built by the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau in the Soviet Union from 1955. It is the fastest single jet engine made by the Russians.
Top Speed: 1,666 MPH Price: Unknown Hours To Get Around The World: 15 Hours
To fulfill the needs for a heavy interceptor to carry out automatic interceptions, the MiG bureau developed a range of large fighter aircraft starting with the swept wing I-3 series. The two single engined Ye-152’s were completed with improved R-15-300 engines. Nevertheless, the jet faced reliability remained an issue, with only limited development flying, weapons system testing and world record flights carried out.
The Ye-152M was retired to the Central Air Force Museum at Monino bearing the erroneous identity Ye-166 and three red stars to signify the world records set by its sister ship, the Ye-152-1.
10. Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound
The Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound is a large, twin-engine supersonic aircraft designed to intercept foreign planes at high speeds. The two-person plane made its first flight in September 1975, and was introduced into service in the Soviet Air Defense Forces in 1982.
Top Speed: 1,860 MPH Price: $57,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 13.36 Hours
The MiG-31 has the distinction of being one of the fastest combat jets in the world with published speeds of Mach 2.83 (1,860 mph, or 3,000 km/h), and was capable of flying supersonic even at low altitudes. It was also the world’s first aircraft with a phased array radar, and is one of only two aircraft in the world capable of independently firing long-range air-to-air missiles as of 2013.
It continues to be operated by the Russian Air Force and the Kazakhstan Air Force following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. The Russian Defence Ministry expects the MiG-31 to remain in service until at least 2030.
9. XB-70 Valkyrie
The mammoth six-engine XB-70 Valkyrie was designed by North American Aviation in the late 1950s. The aircraft was built as a prototype for a proposed nuclear-armed strategic bomber.
Top Speed: 2,000 MPH Price: $750,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 12.43 Hours
The XB-70 Valkyrie achieved its design speed on Oct. 14, 1965, when it accelerated to Mach 3.02 (2,000 mph, or 3,219 km/h), at an altitude of 70,000 feet (21,300 m) over Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Two XB-70s were built and used in supersonic test flights from 1964 to 1969. Whereas one of the prototypes was lost in 1966 after a midair collision, the other XB-70 is on display for the public to view at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
8. Bell X-2 “Starbuster”
The Bell X-2 was a rocket-powered research plane jointly developed by Bell Aircraft Corporation, the U.S. Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the precursor to NASA) in 1945. The aircraft was built to investigate aerodynamic issues with supersonic flight within the Mach 2 to Mach 3 range.
Top Speed: 2,094 MPH Price: $64,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 11.87 Hours
The X-2, nicknamed “Starbuster,” completed its first powered flight in November 1955. The following year, in September 1956, Captain Milburn Apt was at the controls when the X-2 reached Mach 3.2 (2,094 mph, or 3,370 km/h), at an altitude of 65,000 feet (19,800 m).
Shortly after attaining this top speed, however, Apt tried to turn the aircraft while it was still above Mach 3. The plane tumbled out of control, and Apt’s attempts to recover from the spin failed. This tragic accident ended the X-2 program, after a total of 20 test flights.
7. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat
The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat was designed to intercept enemy aircraft at supersonic speeds and to collect reconnaissance data. The plane is one of the fastest military aircraft to have entered operational service. The MiG-25 made its first flight in 1964, and was first used by the Soviet Air Defense Forces in 1970.
Top Speed: 2,190 MPH Price: $18,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 11.35 Hours
The appearance of the MiG-25 sparked serious concern in the West and prompted dramatic increases in performance for the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle then under development in the late 1960s. The plane has an incredible top speed of Mach 3.2 (2,190 mph, or 3,524 km/h). It is one of the highest-flying military aircraft,and the second fastest after the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft.
Production of the MiG-25 series ended in 1984 after completion of 1,190 aircraft. The MiG-25 Foxbat is still in limited service in the Russian Air Force. It is also used by several other nations, including the Algerian Air Force and Syrian Air Force.
6. SR-71 Blackbird
The SR-71 Blackbird was an advanced Cold War-era reconnaissance aircraft developed by Lockheed in the 1960s. The program was known as a “black project,” which meant it was highly classified.
Top Speed: 2,500 MPH Price: $43,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 9.9 Hours
The twin-engine, two-seater aircraft was capable of outracing potential threats during reconnaissance missions, including being able to accelerate and out-fly surface-to-air missiles if it was detected.The SR-71 Blackbird can also accelerate to Mach 3.3 (more than 2,500 mph, or 3,540 km/h) at an altitude of 80,000 feet (24,400 m).
The SR-71 made its first flight in December 1964, and was flown by the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1998. The Blackbird’s performance and achievements cemented the plane as one of the greatest triumphs in aviation technology during the Cold War.
The rocket-powered X-15 was part of a fleet of X-plane experimental aircraft operated jointly by NASA and the U.S. Air Force. In the early 1960s, the X-15 set a number of speed and altitude records, reaching the edge of space (an altitude of more than 62 miles or 100 kilometers) on two separate occasions in 1963.
Top Speed: 4,520 MPH Price: $1,500,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 5.5 Hours
During the X-15 program, 13 flights by eight pilots met the Air Force spaceflight criterion by exceeding the altitude of 50 miles (80 km), thus qualifying these pilots as being astronauts. The Air Force pilots qualified for astronaut wings immediately, while the civilian pilots were eventually awarded NASA astronaut wings in 2005, 35 years after the last X-15 flight.
Of the 199 X-15 missions, two flights (by the same pilot) qualified as true space flights per the international definition of a spaceflight by exceeding 100 kilometers (62.1 mi) in altitude. Currently, the X-15 still holds the official world record for the fastest speed ever reached by a manned aircraft: Mach 6.72, which is 6.72 times the speed of sound, or 4,520 mph (7,274 km/h).
4. Boeing X-51
The Boeing X-51 is a pilot-less plane designed to be used as High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) in 2020.
Top Speed: 3,400 MPH Price: $7,700,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 7.4 Hours
Ground tests of the X-51A began in late 2006. The aircraft completed its first powered hypersonic flight on 26 May 2010. After two unsuccessful test flights, the X-51 completed a flight of over six minutes and reached speeds of over Mach 5 for 210 seconds on May 1, 2013 for the longest duration hypersonic flight.
The Air Force Research Laboratory believes the successful flight will serve as research for practical applications of hypersonic flight, such as a missile, reconnaissance, transport, and air-breathing first stage for a space system.
3. X43A Scramjet
The X-43 was an unmanned experimental hypersonic aircraft with multiple planned scale variations meant to test various aspects of hypersonic flight. It was part of the X-plane series and specifically of NASA’s Hyper-X program.
Top Speed: 7,500 MPH Price: Unknown Hours To Get Around The World: 3.34 Hours
The first plane in the series, the X-43A, was a single-use vehicle. Three of them were built. The first was destroyed after malfunctioning in flight; the other two have successfully flown, with the scramjet operating for approximately 10 seconds, followed by a 10-minute glide and intentional crash into the ocean.
The X-43 has set several airspeed records for jet-propelled aircraft, with its fastest record at approximately Mach 9.6 (7,310 mph) (11,000 km/h). In March 2006, it was announced that the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) supersonic combustion ramjet “WaveRider” flight test vehicle had been designated as X-51A. The USAF Boeing X-51 was first flown on May 26, 2010, dropped from a B-52. So far, this signals the replacement and end of the X-43 series.
Initiated in 2003, X-41 is the designation for a still-classified U.S. military space plane.
Top Speed: 13,000 MPH Price: Unknown Hours To Get Around The World: 1.9 Hours
Specifications or prototype photos of the program have not been released to the public yet; as a result not much is known about its goals. It has been described as an experimental maneuvering re-entry vehicle capable of transporting a 1,000 lb payload on a sub-orbital trajectory at hypersonicspeeds and releasing that payload into the atmosphere.
Even the technology required for the X-41 is not yet known and is still undecided by the government. It is believed a new type of hypersonic travel is also being studied for the X-41 that will apparently be able to travel past Mach 7 and perhaps onto Mach 9. Right now the X-41 is a part of the FALCON (Force Application and Launch from Continental United States) program sponsored by DARPA and NASA.
1. NASA Space Shuttle
The NASA Space Shuttle is a low earth orbital spacecraft designed to explore the outer reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Top Speed: 17,500 MPH Price: $450,000,000.00 Hours To Get Around The World: 1.4 Hours
Its official program name was Space Transportation System (STS), taken from a 1969 plan for a system of reusable spacecraft of which it was the only item funded for development. The first of four orbital test flights occurred in 1981, leading to operational flights beginning in 1982. They were used on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011, launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The first orbiter, Enterprise, was built for Approach and Landing Tests and had no orbital capability. Four fully operational orbiters were initially built: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis. Both the Challenger and the Columbia were lost in mission accidents with a total of fourteen astronauts killed. A fifth operational orbiter, Endeavour, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger. The Space Shuttle was retired from service upon the conclusion of Atlantis‘s final flight on July 21, 2011.
During the 1950s—the era of the Cold War—the United States of America was actively planning the construction of a top-secret aircraft that was meant to replace the U-2. The initial request for a new strategic reconnaissance aircraft was made by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A company called Lockheed Skunk Works was the first to respond to the call. The design they submitted was superbly radical. The plane would become known as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
The company proposed an airframe that could reach an extreme velocity of Mach 3.5 at near-space altitudes. At the same time, it could maintain an exceptionally low cross-radar signature that would make it difficult for enemies to track. Before the Blackbird, titanium was used sparingly—usually on high-temperature exhaust fairings, and other small parts directly related to supporting, cooling, or shaping high-temperature areas on aircraft. The Blackbird was completely different. This plane was made mostly out of titanium, about eighty-five percent, to be more precise. The other fifteen percent was high-end composite materials.
At the time, in the 1960s, computerized equipment was non-existent, so not only was the cockpit unsurprisingly analog, but the Blackbird’s size also had to be adjusted. All of the required gear, which was analog and therefore larger than their modern counterparts, had to fit into the craft. This meant that the plane was relatively large.
In their typical undercover fashion, the CIA created several cover-up companies that were used to purchase the required titanium for the Blackbird’s construction. The source of the titanium was, interestingly, the Soviet Union. This is especially ironic because the Blackbird would be used to gather and rely on information about the Soviet Union to the USA.
The Blackbird’s design was ahead of its time; so much so that many new technologies had to be invented specifically to create the plane. Some of these technologies are still used today. According to Kelly Johnson, one of the biggest problems that engineers faced at the time was working with titanium. “We produced 6,000 parts, and of them, fewer than ten percent were any good. The material [titanium] was so brittle that if you dropped a piece on the floor it would shatter”, he explained.
There were a couple of other difficulties that they encountered. For example, ordinary drills were useless with titanium, because after about seventeen rivet holes, the drill would be destroyed. Yet another obstruction occurred during the welding process. They eventually figured out that if an extremely rare and expensive argon shielding gas was used, they could ensure the highest quality of welds.
The problems did not end with the construction. Since the velocity and height of the Blackbird were so extreme, crews had to adjust and train accordingly. The two major survival problems that crews faced whilst flying altitudes of 80,000 feet were maintaining consciousness at high altitude and surviving a possible emergency ejection. Major Brian Shul is the author of Sled Driver, a book about his experience as a pilot of the SR-71. He explained that whilst flying at Mach 3.5, the pilot could cover several countries in the Middle East in mere minutes. To cope with the low atmospheric pressure and lack of oxygen at high altitudes, pilots were required to wear pressurized flight suits.
Flying at Mach 3.5 had other side effects too. When flying at full velocity, the surface of the Blackbird heats up to 260°C+ (500 °F). If the airplane did not have proper air conditioning system, the cockpit could also heat up to about 120°C. After landing, there was a required cool-off period—ground crew and pilots had to wait for the plane’s temperature to drop before beginning any maintenance work.
In total, 3,551 mission sorties were flown by the Blackbird to spy on military installations, troop movements, and nuclear silos during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Due to the spy equipment installed, Blackbirds were able to survey 100,000 square miles per hour of Earth’s surface from an altitude of 80,000 feet. Many of these missions were over conflict countries, such as the Middle East, Asia, and a large part of Europe. Of the thirty-two aircraft that were built, twelve of those were lost. None of those, however, were lost due to enemy military retaliation, which is an impressive feat.
There is no doubt that the Blackbird was an airplane ahead of its time. The lack of technology in the early 60s meant that there are several design flaws, so to speak, that were left unsolved.
For example, one of the complications that designers faced was the creation of fuel tanks (fuel cells). At the time, there were no materials that would make it possible to withstand the extreme temperature differences that a normal flight would experience. In the end, Lockheed designed the fuel cells in such a way that once the airplane was hot enough, the cells would expand and seal the leaking fuel.
In order to decrease take-off load, and therefore relieve stress on the titanium airframe, the fuel cells were only partially filled. Furthermore, crews had to use two different mixtures of fuel. One was used to start the craft, and the other to actually fly it. Once airborne, the Blackbird had to be immediately refuelled from a KC-135Q Stratotanker.
Unfortunately, the Blackbird fleet was expensive to maintain. The USAF tried to retire the planes black in 1987, but they didn’t retire officially until 1989. The option of reactivating the fleet was considered during the 1993 conflict in the Middle East. An expedited reconnaissance would have been extremely helpful. Finally, in 1998, the Blackbird project was permanently retired in 1998. The last two flyable planes were given to NASA and were used 1999. Now, all the Blackbirds people see are in museums.
Ultimately there are four key ways to fly privately. The best solution for you will depend on how often you fly and how far ahead you can commit.
In Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders in 1989, he compared his new private jet with the prayer apocryphally attributed to Saint Augustine. As Augustine contemplated leaving a life of secular pleasures, he is said to have looked to the heavens and pleaded: “Help me, Oh Lord, to become chaste. But not yet.” With his famously frugal business partner Charles Munger (who prefers to ride a coach for long-distance travel, according to Buffett), he settled on naming the jet The Indefensible. That year, the jet helped Buffett to deliver US$1.5 billion growth in his company’s net worth.
Whether you admire the Sage of Omaha or are more inclined to side with his thriftier partner, no one can dispute that flying privately gets you where you want to, more quickly and more comfortably than commercial airlines. Whether you choose to use that extra time watching your kid’s school play, sailing your yacht or maximising business meetings is up to you.
In 1989, Warren Buffett had two choices: buy his own aircraft, or charter. Today, there are many different ways to fly privately. You can book your aircraft with a couple of clicks via an app or through any number of brokers. You could opt for a programme where you tie in with a provider for a set number of hours. You can buy outright, too. Today there are more jets, companies and options than ever for sale and it is a buyer’s market.
Ultimately there are four key ways to fly privately. The best solution for you will depend on how often you fly, how far ahead you can commit, and whether at heart you’re a Buffett or a Munger.
Scenario 1: Charter You’ve always fancied going to Art Basel and after making your first major investment in a Cy Twombly earlier this year, you’ve been invited to the preview day. The only problem is it is your wife’s birthday and you need to be home for a family dinner. Your solution? Charter a jet for the day. You leave home in the morning, fly to the fair (and pick up a present there), and you are back home in time for dinner. Best for: Ad hoc, infrequent flyers Aircraft: You’re happy to try different aircraft and operators Schedule: Flexible Price: The best-possible deal
Scenario 2: Private jet card Work is really ramping up this year as you head for an IPO. Those long, lazy holidays at the summerhouse are going to be tough to make this year. So you decide to invest in a private jet card. Now you’re out the office on a Friday afternoon, in the sky and by 8pm you’re overlooking the sea having dinner with your family. You get a full 48 hours with them over the weekend before heading back on Sunday night… and the odd time you even change your mind and stay over until Monday. Best for: Travelling privately five to 10 times per year Aircraft: You want to use the same type of aircraft Schedule: Guaranteed availability with reasonable notice Price: Fixed costs over 12 months
Scenario 3: Fractional ownership
You’ve started to notice what a difference flying privately makes. You see your family and friends more, you’re in the office more and you’re not nearly as tired as you used to be. In fact you’re starting to forget what an airline lounge looks like. You’ve decided flying privately is for you. You’re prepared to invest in an aircraft where you can simplify the way you book and fly. It’s time to consider a fraction of an aircraft as you know you’re going to be flying once a month. Best for: Regular monthly private flyers, looking to fly for a few years Aircraft: One type of aircraft and you enjoy the familiarity of flying with the same operator Schedule: Short notice Price: Fixed costs of flying for several years and your company might be able to get a depreciation benefit for your business flying
Scenario 4: Buy your own
Your family is now firmly ensconced in its new home in Monaco, and you are all going back and forth to London and various schools across Europe. You are trying to fit in board meetings across the globe in the remaining days and it’s starting to feel like you spend your life in a private jet. Your schedule changes constantly and even the guaranteed availability offered by your current operator is not enough. Every time you get on an aircraft, you start dreaming about how you would do things differently if it was yours. Best for: Flying at least once a week Aircraft: Same aircraft, bespoke interiors, your hand-picked crew Schedule: Very short-notice travel or constant changes to your itinerary are the norm. Or you may need aircraft and crew on standby for long periods Price: Money is no object
Nicolas and Emily have been in the private aviation industry for more than 20 years and are co-founders of I&W Aviation (www.iwaviation.com). They advise individuals and corporations globally with independent market advice and day-to-day oversight of their private flying.