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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