Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An aviation fairytale

Once upon a time, in the midst of the Cold War, there was a class of aircraft called "interceptors." These high-flying birds were designed to do exactly what it says on the box: intercept incoming strategic bombers.

Oh, how they were popular. The U.S. rolled out a huge number of models--exotic beasts like the F-104 Starfighter (basically a big engine with small wings) and more conventional models like the F-106 Delta Dart. The Soviets eventually fielded their brute-force MiG-25, which could touch the edge of Mach 3 if you didn't want to bother using the engines ever again. The British had the sleek Electric Lightning.

And the Canadians had the F-101 Voodoo. But for a second there, it appeared they were going to have an indigenous design... an aircraft called the Avro Arrow that would have been among the most advanced of its day.

How advanced? It was designed to travel twice the speed of sound and carry up to eight air-to-air missiles, or four unguided nuclear air-to-air rockets. It could cruise above 50,000 feet, albeit with a combat radius of less than 400 nautical miles. But hey, that was fine, as all you were doing was scrambling to blow up bombers before they got around to the business of bombing.

One sleek-looking snowbird.

It was, controversially, canceled in favor of buying the Voodoo, which isn't exactly in the pantheon of amazing flying machines. And these days, no modern military really uses single-purpose interceptors, as that role has largely been taken up by long-range surface-to-air missiles that are much cheaper and more effective.

So, it appears, the Avro Arrow is a footnote to aviation history. But! Some Canadian politicians, unhappy (as many are) with the cost of the U.S.-built and as-yet-undelivered F-35, say there is good reason to revive it. They argue that a re-designed Arrow could not just replace, but outperform the Lightning II.
Mr. MacKenzie said the proposal he’s put before the Harper government is for a made-in-Canada plane that could fly twice as fast as the F-35 and up to 20,000 feet higher. It would feature an updated Mark III engine and its range would be two to three times that of the F-35.
Well, now. Those are some serious claims. Yes, the F-35 has been enormously expensive and isn't exactly running on schedule, but could it be outgunned by 1950s-era technology?

The answer, let me assure you, is a "NO" the size of a Tu-95.

As another commentator pointed out, "twice the speed" of the F-35, currently listed at more than Mach 1.6, is obviously a minimum of Mach 3.2. Guess how many jet-powered aircraft have managed sustained speeds that high? One. The awesome and awesome-looking SR-71. It was purpose-built for that speed, which entails enormous heat and aerodynamic forces. It carried cameras, not weapons... although an interceptor version was considered. And although it was impervious to any SAM systems of the late 20th Century, flying too high and too fast to get hit, that is almost certainly not the case today.

The SR-71, by the way, was retired because its job could be done more cheaply by satellites.

Which is a shame, because did I mention it was awesome-looking?

The other performance stuff the New Arrow's supporters note seem equally unlikely. A ceiling 20,000 feet above the Lightning II's is 80,000 feet, which also happens to be in the flight realm of the SR-71, and pretty much no other aircraft. Similarly, a combat radius three times that of the F-35 would be about 1,500 nautical miles... a range nearly four times that of the original Arrow and 50 percent more than the closest thing to a modern interceptor these days, the F-15 Eagle.

So to recap, a 1950s airframe will be magically updated to fly higher and faster than the current world record holder, and have more range than one of the most effective combat aircraft in history. That's leaving out the question of avionics--the F-35s are among the most advanced in the world out of the box--and stealth.

I hope no one in the Canadian government is taking this proposal seriously. The Arrow is a neat-looking plane and it's a shame it never really got off the ground. But reviving it in a 21st Century combat environment makes about as much sense as a flying submarine.

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