Debunking Myths about Fighter Jets

 

This week I decided to address some common myths among the general public about Fighter Jets and debunk the myths to get to the true facts.

Myth No.1: Afterburner will get you to top speed and outrun everything

Lots of people believe that a fighter jet on full afterburner can fly at their max speed for a while and run away from any threat. Afterburners are actually extremely fuel thirsty, and very few planes can fly at their Max speed for more than a few minutes. Planes have extra thrust/engine power to carry more payload and climb higher, but not to fly faster. Most Fighter Jet’s top speeds are not limited by engine thrust. For example, an F-15C Eagle’s max speed is about Mach 2.4/2800 km/h, but it can only maintain that speed for two minutes before the engine intakes and the engine fan blades begins overheating or becomes stressed out.
F-22s and F-16s are unable to maintain their top speed for more than 3-4 minutes for the same reason, the friction generated at Mach 2 can deform and eventually melt the cockpit canopy. What are Fighter jet canopy made from? Mostly PolyMethyl Acrylite, or Polycarbonate, they’re basically very strong acrylic glass.
Fuel consumption for a Jet with afterburners is also shocking.An F-16C is powered by a GE F-110 engine that generates nearly 30,000 pounds/14 tons of thrust, it also burns 250-300 kilos of fuel per minute at 10,000 ft (Max throttle with afterburners). So an F-16C will run of fuel in less than 9 minutes at full power.
Myth No.1: Afterburner will get you to top speed and outrun everything

Myth No.2: Planes can scramble immediately in emergencies.

Here’s a rubbish trope seen in every movie. Our band of brave badasses need to escape quickly or stop the bad guys. They jump on a helicopter/fighter jet/nuclear powered UFO, flicks a bunch of switches, and within a minute or so they’re flying. In reality the fastest time a military plane can ‘scramble’ to takeoff is 10-15 minutes after the alarms start screaming.
During the Cold War Paranoias of the 50’s, the U.S Air Force became obsessed with ‘operational readiness’. They wanted to be sure that American planes can nuke the Russians before the Reds can nuke American airbases. Bombers were kept on 24-7 alert, ready to fry Communists with the power of the Atom bomb, Fighters were kept on 24-7 alert ready to stop the Russians from frying Americans. It was a security nightmare. Bombers and Fighters, fully loaded with fuel and armament (sometimes nuclear bombs) sat outside their hangers, and mechanics slept underneath the plane or inside the hanger. Even with such extreme measures, Bombers could only take off after 20 minutes, Fighter jets sometimes did leave the ground 10 minutes after receiving notice. During 9/11, F-15s directed to stop the hijacked planes, took 11 minutes to be armed and piloted, and 7 minutes to take off. (Some sources say they could have taken as little as 8 minutes)

Myth No. 3. Dogfights between planes involves spraying bullets.

First thing first, I’m not saying that fighter jets never use gun/cannons on each-other. When the U.S introduced the F-4B Phantom, a fighter without a cannon, into the Vietnam War, it lost badly in close ranges. However, the clear majority of air combat after the 1950s are done from very long range. Missiles like the America AIM-120 and the Chinese PL-10 can hit targets from 100km away, ramjet missiles like the British Meteor aim to push their range to 150+km. Even ‘short’ ranged air to air missiles like the Sidewinder and the ASRAAM can travel 20-40km. If two squadrons of Fighter aircraft meet, chances are that one side will back off before they can visually contact each other.
An F/A-18's Gatling cannon and 570 rounds of 20mm ammo

An F/A-18’s Gatling cannon and 570 rounds of 20mm ammo

Fighter planes also carry very little ammo for their gun. F-15Cs carry eight missiles each and 600 rounds of ammo, but keep in mind the M61 cannon fires at 6000 rpm, a F-15 will run out of ammo after 7 seconds of firing. The ammo capacity on the new F-35 is even more pathetic, a F-35 will expend all of her 180 25mm shells in less than four seconds.

Myth No 4: Stealth=Radar invisibility.

There are two types of Stealth technology, first is shaping the Airplane to deflect radar waves (Which is why the F-22 and B-2 looks so smooth and rounded) second is using radar-absorbing paint or fibre to cover the aircraft. Most stealth planes use both techniques. However both techniques can be bypassed by VLF radar or Infrared detection.
A Chinese JY-26 VLF radar

A Chinese JY-26 VLF radar

While Stealth aircraft are hard to shoot down and are valuable as weapons, they’re not invisible. High frequency radar (We’re talking about the wavelength of the radio wave here) can detect even F-22 and B-2s, but they can’t track or produce a targeting solution accurate enough to fire a missile at it. Modern Infrared heat seeker missiles or Infrared sensors can also lock onto stealth aircrafts from 60-100km away. If a AIM-9X missile can lock onto a cigarette, it will lock onto any jet engine.

Myth No 5. Dogfights will end up with two dudes trying to outturn each other.

According to test pilot Lt. Col. “Spanky” Clifton (Who has flown America, European and Soviet jets) he says that turn too much during a dogfight and you’ll kill yourself. The reason is simple, aggressive turning cause aircraft to lose speed. Once you’re slow, the enemy will put some distance between him and you then aim at you comfortably, next thing you know you’re chewed up by cannon fire and short range missiles.
So what is Col. Clifton’s advice on dogfights? ‘Keep the airspeed up’ Do a combination of vertical and horizontal manoeuvres and try to kill the other guy before he starts dogfighting with you.

Myth No 6: Fancy fighter jets are pointless! Long range air combat is overrated!

(I’ve heard a lot about this one when people criticise the F-35, it’s a bad airplane sure, but it’s not bad because of it’s long-range combat abilities.) It’s well known that, despite the invention of long range missiles, dogfights are still relevant, so why build fancy, expensive jets that struggle in close range? Well, large, complex aircrafts can carry bigger radar and more long ranged missile, they can inflict heavy losses before dogfighting. Even ‘big’ F-15s or Su-27s are still reasonably agile and can be a challenge to take down for small fighter like the F-16 or Gripen.
A chart demonstrating the range of various Russian missiles

A chart demonstrating the range of various Russian missiles

Long range missiles were at their infancy and struggled to be useful during the Vietnam War, but by the 90’s they were so good that 66$ of AIM-7 and AIM-120 missiles that were fired resulted in a kill. During the Gulf War, the Iraqis and American planes never got within 20 miles of each other during air combat Things didn’t end well for Iraqi pilots.

 

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