Friday, June 29, 2012

Video Del Fuego, Part LV

During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had rather large programs dedicated to building bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the other's territory. Needless to say, both sides also spent quite a bit of effort on defensive measures. Sometimes, the cycle of move and counter-move had some surprising results.

In the middle of the 1950s, the United States began to get concerned about the ability of their then-current nuclear bombers to reach their targets deep within the Soviet Union. Why they were so concerned is an interesting question, since the aircraft whose survivability they were so concerned about is still flying combat sorties, while most of its intended replacements bleach in the sun at Davis-Monthan ... but I digress. Anyway, planners decided that higher and faster was definitely the way to go. And so, they decided to proceed with plans to build a bomber capable of flying at altitudes of over 70,000 feet, and at speeds of up to Mach 3. And so, the XB-70 project was born.

Born, but never brought to maturity. By 1959, it was apparent to the Air Force that the B-70 as designed would be vulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft missiles. It was downgraded to a research and development project studying high-speed flight.

Not that everyone believed that it was being downgraded, mind you. The XB-70 and the SR-71 both represented an unprecedented ability to penetrate Soviet airspace, which was a major cause for concern. Therefore, there was a very sudden need for an interceptor capable of meeting these possible intruders. This would prove to be a very tall order, indeed. One that was just barely possible.

Building an aircraft capable of cruising at Mach 3 at high altitude is one kind of technical challenge. But to build an interceptor, you don't need to meet that kind of sustained performance, you only have to get close enough, and that only long enough to get a couple of missiles off. So, a plan began to come together...

First, get a couple of engines. Really BIG engines. The biggest and most powerful that can be built. Then, because the airplane would have to deal with a lot of heat, build the airframe out of nickel steel. It'll be heavy as hell, but you've got two whacking huge engines, so who cares? And put an enormous radar in the front, so you can spot the intruder far enough away to tell your missiles to sic 'em. This was more or less how the MiG-25 Foxbat came about.

The best word to describe this airplane is enormous. Its simple, spare lines howl pure power. It was built to go in a straight line very fast, and it does that quite well. It doesn't turn worth a damn. And if you do get it up to Mach 3, you won't ever be able to use those particular engines again. But the engines will last just long enough to drag down a high, fast intruder, or to overfly a contested area for some surveillance pictures.

Now, here's where the story gets a little weird. While the Soviets were building an interceptor to take down a bomber that the USAF decided not to build in the first place, the USAF began to get wind of this hot new super-fighter the Russians were building. The specifications were troubling: two powerful engines, large delta wings, and a powerful radar. Clearly, the Soviets were building an air superiority fighter, one that would outmatch anything in the American inventory. So, the USAF put out an RFP for a fighter that could beat this new menace. And so, McDonnell Douglas responded with what would become the F-15.

For years, analysts debated what would happen if these two behemoths ever went head-to-head. In 1991, they finally found out. American F-15s squared off against Iraqi MiG-25s ... and it wasn't a particularly close fight. The MiG was built to kill bombers, not fighters, and the results showed it. The pure interceptor is an idea whose time has been and gone. The only airplane that can stand up to something built to kill fighters, is another airplane built to kill fighters.

Still, this is one magnificent beast. How big are the engines, you ask? Check out the guy sitting on the nozzle lip. He's not a dwarf.

And dear God, it's a loud 'un. It'll shake your fillings loose, if you get close enough.

There are still a few two-seaters kept in flying trim, to take a few paying customers up to the edge of space.

The older I get, the more I realize that while there's beauty in sophistication, there's also a beauty and an elegance in simplicity. And the Foxbat is a very straightforward, uncomplicated thing. They sure don't make them like that anymore.

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