Fighter Pilots Can’t Fight If They Can’t See
Canopy visibility is as important now as it was during World War II
by JAMES PERRY STEVENSON
During World War II, the top-scoring American fighter ace was Richard Bong with 40 kills. That sounds like a large number — and for American pilots it was. But to put 40 kills into perspective, Eric Hartmann — a World War II German pilot — had 352 confirmed kills.
Consequently, it seems relevant to listen to Hartmann’s explanation on how he was able to achieve such a large number, one that has never been equaled. Was it his ability to maneuver better, did he fly a faster airplane, or was German training better?
A couple of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School’s instructors interviewed Hartmann during a trip to Germany and published their interview in Topgun Journal.
Hartmann was clear about the reason for his success — he said he never engaged if the other pilot saw him. If Hartman’s prey noticed him, he left. He made sure he came out of the sun or from behind without being seen. He never got into a maneuvering dogfight. He was, in essence, an aerial assassin.
Hartmann’s explanation ratified a common expression heard around the Navy fighter school, a.k.a. “Topgun.”
“First sight wins the fight.” While working as the editor of Topgun Journal, I had the opportunity to interview pilots over a six-year period. I asked hundreds of them if they had one single advantage, what they would want.
Would it be a longer-range missile, a faster or better-maneuvering airplane, a better radar? Regardless of what I suggested, the answer was always the same. “The first sighting.”
Pierre Sprey — a former employee of and consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and various aerospace companies and an aeronautical architect on the F-16 and A-10 programs — collected and analyzed historical material on what makes a great fighter.
First on his list — the plane must help its pilot obtain the first sighting.
Taking into consideration Hartmann’s comments, Topgun instructors and student wishes for the first sighting and Sprey’s conclusion that to “obtain the first sighting” is step one to prevailing in aerial combat, it seems reasonable to investigate how cockpit visibility improved or degraded over time.
What follow are a series of images showing the rate of change of cockpit visibility with respect to time.
The P-51A, which first flew on April 23, 1941, had the classic birdcage cockpit with multiple structural elements, as well as the flat plate behind the pilot the completely obstructed his rearward view.
The P-51B, shown above, first flew 19 months after the P-51A. It’s first flight was on Nov. 30, 1942. While it had yet to incorporate the bubble or teardrop canopy, this particular Mustang incorporates the English-created Malcolm Hood, a slight bulging of the canopy in an attempt to increase rearward visibility.
Within one year, on November 17, 1943, the lessons of aerial battles were incorporated into the P-51D, the first P-51 to incorporate the bubble canopy.
The same drive for improved visibility was also evident in the evolution of the Republic P-47B Thunderbolt. It first flew May 6, 1941, but was not introduced until November 1942 and entered combat with poor rearward visibility.
The P-47D with the bubble canopy first began appearing in the European Theatre in May 1944, in time to support troops invading France the following month.
The Grumman F4F Hellcat, the Navy’s primary fighter during World War II, first flew June 26, 1943. The Hellcat had the birdcage cockpit and a bulkhead that blocked rearward visibility. The Grumman F8F Bearcat, which first flew Aug. 21, 1944, incorporated the bubble canopy.
One of the most recognizable Navy fighter designs of World War II was the Vought F4U Corsair with its cranked wings. The F4U first flew May 29, 1940. The Corsair was also built by Goodyear. The Navy designated fighters with an “F” followed by a number, unless it was the first fighter built, and another letter indicating the manufacturer.
The Corsairs built by Goodyear had the letter “G” following the “F” as in FG-1 and F2G-2. You can experience the obstructing bulkhead in the Corsair by visiting a 360-degree view inside the cockpit of the FG-1.
Some Vought-designed Corsairs were built by Goodyear, and given the designation FG-1. The F2G-1 had an enhanced motor and is distinguished from the FG-1 and the F4U by its bubble canopy. The F2G-1 made its first flight on July 15, 1945.
The experiences of World War II lingered and in the late 1940s and early 1950s the jet continued to sport the bubble canopy. However, speed and the influence of aerodynamicists eventually took over.
What follows is a series of images of airplanes developed during the end of World War II through the late 1980s. You will see the devolution of visibility from the cockpit, reaching the low point during the 1950s and early 1960s, improving during the late 1960s through the early 1990s, only to fall off the cliff beginning with the 21st century.
The lessons from Vietnam invigorated the need to increase cockpit visibility, beginning with the F-15 Eagle, the first airplane designed specifically to “dogfight,” followed by the F-16, F-18 and F-22, airplanes with teardrop canopies reminiscent of those in World War II.
The F-35 images point to the abandonment of excellent cockpit visibility and a return to pre-World War II bulkheads instead of a clear view of possible assassins.
The visibility from the cockpit in the F-86 Sabre was excellent and set the standard for the F-15 Eagle. The F-86 made its first flight on Oct. 1, 1947
You can see the beginning of degrading cockpit visibility with the F-100 Super Sabre and its emphasis on minimizing drag. Between the F-100A and the F-100F, the Super Sabre evolved from a pure air-to-air fighter to one with the ability to carry nuclear weapons. It first flew on May 25, 1953.
The Navy permitted reduced pilot awareness for the sake of drag reduction with the F-8 Crusader — here in French markings — which made its first flight on March 25, 1955.
The Republic F-105 was a nuclear bomber that first flew Oct. 22, 1955. What gave it the right to call itself a fighter was its internal gun. Indeed, with the gun it was able to generate air-to-air kills against the North Vietnamese MiGs.
Those gun kills might not have happened if Lt. Gen. William Momyer had his way. He was part of a team in 1959 that recommended removing some items from the F-105 to save $110,000 per airplane.
One of the items was the gun which was responsible for 27 air-to-air gun kills in Vietnam most of which took place while Momyer was commander of the 7th Air Force in Vietnam.
If the pilot of the F-107 “Ultra” Sabre were to look rearward, the only thing he would see was the bulkhead, much like in the Navy’s F4U or the Army Air Forces’ P-47B. If he were to look up, his view would be blocked by the air intake. The F-107’s first flight was Sept. 10, 1956.
The F-4 Phantom II made its first flight May 27, 1958. It was designed to intercept incoming threats to the aircraft carrier but was eventually used by the Air Force. No doubt no one foresaw that it would be used extensively in Vietnam as an air-to-air dogfighter. Student pilots visiting Topgun flying F-4 Phantoms expressed a strong desire for better visibility from the cockpit.
The F-111 abandoned all pretense of being able to see rearward from the cockpit. The F-111 made its first flight Dec. 21, 1964.
In the late 1960s, a series of fighter aircraft designs were forthcoming from the Air Force and the Navy, most likely because of the poor exchange ratio in Vietnam. Although the kill-loss ratio between the North Vietnamese and American pilots was about 2.5-to-1, the trend from 1965 to 1968 was heading toward parity.
Some of the better minds in the Pentagon, such as John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, Everest Riccioni and Chuck Myers shared opinion that created a series of fighters specifically designed to maintain air superiority. Their voices and others like-minded understood the necessity for excellent pilot vision from the cockpit. The first to fly was the F-15 Eagle.
Cockpit visibility from the cockpit of the F-15 Eagle is reminiscent of the F-86. Indeed, the visibility from the F-86 was set as a minimum in the F-15’s specifications. The Eagle flew July 27, 1972.
A year and one-half after the F-15 made its first flight, the General Dynamics YF-16 first flew Jan. 20, 1974, with an improvement in the cockpit visibility. The structural bow was moved behind the pilot to eliminate any forward interference and left excellent reward visibility.
Following on the exhaust of the YF-16, the YF-17 made its first flight, in June 1974, again with excellent visibility from the cockpit. The Northrop YF-17 competed with the YF-16 in the Air Force’s Air Combat Fighter competition. The YF-17 was the loser in the competition but became the basis for the design of the F-18A and subsequent models.
The F-18, which first flew in November 1978, continued the excellent visibility from the cockpit introduced in the YF-17.
When the Air Force began the Advanced Tactical Fighter stealth fighter competition in the early 1980s, Northrop and Lockheed entered designs, both of which had bubble canopies, indicating an understanding of the need for pilots to see if an enemy fighter was behind them.
The Northrop YF-23, which first flew Aug. 27, 1990, has good rearward visibility.
The Lockheed entry into the Advanced Tactical Fighter Competition, the YF-22, first flow on Sept. 29, 1990. The Lockheed design was declared the winning design in April 1991.
The production version, which first flew Sept. 7, 1997, continued with the single piece canopy that eliminated any interference in the canopy, but you can observe a slight incline on the side, so that the rearward visibility, while good, is not equal to the F-16.
When it comes to aircraft design, military planners debate between developing an airplane that performs multiple missions adequately versus two or more single-purpose designs that can perform single missions with excellence.
Would you rather have if you were marching through the jungle — a Swiss army knife or a machete. The Swiss army knife is often justified as the less expensive solution because it eliminates the need to inventory multiple types of airplanes.
The costs of the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the A-10 Warthog, two machetes in the Air Force inventory, challenge that assumption. One can debate which is the better solution but what is not debatable is the need for excellent vision from the cockpit, a need as fundamental as the ejection seat.
In the mid-1990s, the Swiss army approach for a replacement plane began to appear in a new competition known as the Joint Strike Fighter, an airplane competition designed to replace the close air support mission, currently performed by the A-10, and the air superiority mission, performed by the F-15 and F-16.
Boeing entered its design, designated the X-32A, and Lockheed entered its X-35. The X-32 flew Sept. 18, 2000, and Lockheed’s X-35 flew on Oct. 24, 2000. Two days past one year, on Oct. 26, 2001, the Department of Defense declared Lockheed Martin’s X-35 the winner.
Visibility from the Boeing X-32A cockpit is reminiscent of the F4U Corsair of World War II fame as well as the F-8 Crusader and other Century Series fighters from the 1950s. This Boeing design also makes it difficult for the pilot to look down from the side of the cockpit, a requirement for the close air support mission this design was supposed to support.
Lockheed won the Joint Strike Fighter competition on Oct. 16, 2001 with its X-35 submission. It does not take much imagination to see if the pilot turned around, he or she could not see an approaching an aerial assassin. The pilot’s view would be reminiscent of the bulkheads of early World War II and Century Series fighters from the 1950s.
To suggest that the F-35 would perform as well as either the F-15 or F-16 in the air superiority role, or that it could replace the A-10 in the close air support mission, strains credulity. It would require the leap of faith by the unknowables from the unknowing reminiscent of World War II.
Recall that without so much as a test, the bomber zealots claimed the bomber would always get through because the bombers were faster than fighters, could fly higher than fighters, were so heavily armored, and so heavily armed with guns bristling all over the bombers that should a random fighter leak through their three-dimensional formation of bullets, the gun turrets would prevent the enemy fighter from shooting them down.
Because of this belief, the Army Air Corps failed to develop fighter escort airplanes to accompany the bombers, leaving no evidence to contradict them. In a sense, the gun turret was to the B-17 what stealth is to today’s combat airplanes — a claim of invulnerability that history challenges.
History tells us that their faith was without substance. On their initial deep penetration raids without fighter escort into Germany, the bombers were eviscerated. Note particularly the devastation on their raids on Schweinfurt and Regensburg on Aug. 17, 1943, and Schweinfurt Oct. 14.
By any measure, the lost and damage rate from any of these raids was unstainable. A large percentage of damaged bombers, indicated in yellow, never flew again. None of these results were predicted by the Army Air Corps prior to the war. Yet based without tests and on faith alone, they asked for American taxpayers to trust them.
The United States Air Force is now asking Americans to conjure up the same level of faith that stealth will work on the F-35. Americans breach of faith began when two F-117s raided Panama in December 1989 and missed their targets by hundreds of feet. We were told later it was pilot confusion.
Next, we were told the F-117 could invade Serbia without detection, only to have two F-117s hit by a 1960s-era SA-3 surface-to-air missile similar to the ones used in the 1960s in Vietnam. One F-117 crashed and the second limped back to Aviano Air Base in Italy never to be heard from for the balance of the war.
Former Senate staffer Winslow Wheeler and I visited recently with 25 pilots and maintenance officers at Langley Air Force Base. During the visit, we were told of the stellar results of an evolution in Alaska of simulated threat aircraft against F-22 Raptors.
The assertions were impressive. After the presentation, we were invited to visit Nellis Air Force. We accepted. When we arrived, we listened to a room full of aggressor pilots telling us about the effectiveness of stealth on the F-22.
As evidence, we were invited to view the Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation screen, a large display that permits viewers to watch airplanes maneuver in real time.
The evolution we saw was F-16s aggressor pilots versus F-22s. It was a most interesting presentation, highlighted by the fact that an F-16 killed an F-22 within 20 minutes.
Now we are being told that the Air Force’s new F-35 can perform the close air support mission so keeping the A-10 Warthog would be a redundancy — and a duplication the Air Force cannot afford.
One has to decide if the Air Force is capable of anticipating future results. The Air Force left the A-10 Warthog, an airplane dedicated to the close air support mission, off the list of invited guests to participate in the 1990 Operation Desert Storm.
If it were not for Army general Norman Schwartzkopf’s insistence that the A-10 come to the dance, the Air Force would have prevailed. Since the A-10 was included, it could demonstrate its effectiveness by destroying more targets than any other airplane.
The Air Force will tell you it has technology to be able to avoid the necessity of getting close to the ground to provide close air support in the F-35 or any other airplane.
The F-35, the Air Force claims, can provide “distance air support.” Most Army soldiers will tell you that the pilot has to be able to fly close enough to the ground to discern friendly troops from the enemy — with his eyes.
The F-35 wants to avoid getting down where soldiers roam because it does not have self-sealing fuel tanks, a technology that has existed before World War II. Without fuel tank protection, that the F-35 can be destroyed with a .22-caliber rifle.
Virtually no Army soldier believes the F-35 can provide the quality of close air support that comes close to what the A-10 can provide, even if it had self-sealing tanks. But without them, no sane F-35 pilot would attempt it.
But this is a discussion is about cockpit visibility, so let’s compare the pilot visibility from the F-35 canopy with the A-10’s.
It is clear from this image of the F-35 cockpit that if the pilot turns around, he will be staring at the bulkhead.
As evidence the Department of Defense had abandoned lessons learned from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and follow-on battles since then, it brought into the inventory an airplane that would not permit the pilot to see possible threats behind him — with his eyes — a requirement critical for both the air superiority and close air support missions, both of which the F-35 was procured to replace.
If the attached images don’t make it obvious, listen to what the pilots flying the F-35 say about visibility. “Test Pilots: Stealth Jet’s Blind Spot Will Get It ‘Gunned Every Time’” is an excellent summary of pilots comments.
But if you want even more information of the subject, see the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation for the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter report. It contains such pithy comments from the pilots as “[a] pilot will find it nearly impossible to check [their six o’clock position] under g,” or “[t]he head rest is too large and will impede aft visibility and survivability during surface and air engagements,” or “[a]ft visibility will get the pilot gunned every time.”
A quick glance at the Fairchild Republic A-10 Warthog shows the clear rearward visibility available in this dedicated close-air-support airplane.
If we assume that future conflicts will contain moves and counter-moves, tactics resulting in the nullification of electronic wizardry, the air-superiority role could revert to pilot skills and the gun.
Indeed, recent articles are claiming the new Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile can defeat stealth embedded in the F-35. In a war of electronics, American pilots may need to shut down his or her on-board electronics to avoid a visit from an anti-radiation missile, missiles the Russians are known to have.
Should that happen, American pilots will be forced to revert to pilot skills against an adversary whose flying abilities are unknown. Americans have faith in the skills of its pilots, enhanced by movies such as Top Gun, and by claims of a 10-to-1 kill-loss ratio between American and Korean pilots, but that exchange rate is now being questioned.
No one predicted Germany would have a pilot such as Hartmann who could generate 352 kills against American pilots, and even less predictable was the quality of many other German pilots who generated numerous kills.
How many? Hartmann was the best, but 372 German pilots had more kills than Richard Bong’s 40. 107 of the pilots had between 101 and 301 kills. If the Air Force were to ask pilots anonymously what they wanted to fly in the next air war, they would ask to fly in one of the two aerial machetes currently available — an F-22 or an A-10 — rather than flying a container for electronics without a back window.