RAF

Know Your Air Force – Combat, Support And Heritage Aircraft

A look at the some of the RAF’s more-well-known aircraft, both past and present.

When many people think of the Royal Air Force, they likely imagine the Spitfires of the Second World War, or possibly the cutting-edge fighter aircraft that the RAF flies today.

The RAF, of course, is more than just its most visible and well-known parts. It has a complex structure, and it flies multiple transport and training aircraft.

Though without combat and other supporting aircraft, the RAF would not be an effective modern air force. What follows is an overview of this fighter and support aircraft, both present and past.

Combat aircraft

While the RAF’s newest fighter jet is the F-35B, as of May 2021, there are only 21 of them in the MOD’s possession, with the majority at RAF Marham.

That leaves the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR Mk.4 as the main RAF fighter, with 137 in RAF possession, according to the document ‘UK Armed Forces Equipment and Formations 2021 tables’. Unless they are overseas on operations, the RAF’s Typhoons are based at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby and are flown by 11 RAF squadrons: 1 (F) Squadron, II (AC) Squadron, 3 (F) Squadron, 4 (RAF Police) Typhoon Squadron, 6 Squadron, IX (B) Squadron, XI (F) Squadron, 12 Squadron, 29 Squadron and 41 Squadron.

Nos. 1, II, 3, 6, IX and XI Squadrons are all primarily involved in the defence of UK airspace and are QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) squadrons, with IX Squadron also playing the ‘aggressor’ role during trainings. These units may also be deployed overseas on operations, and, when they are, 4 (RAF Police) Typhoon Squadron provides security for the aircraft when they are on the ground.

No. 12 Squadron is also based in the UK at RAF Coningsby and, as well as operating the Typhoon, it provides Typhoon training for members of the Qatari military, with Qatar having purchased a number of Eurofighter Typhoons in 2017.

Meanwhile, 6 and 41 Squadrons provide training and testing and evaluation for the Typhoon, and the aircraft is also in use by 1435 Flight at RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falklands, and by the RAF’s Typhoon Display Team.

As it turns out, the Typhoon’s capabilities make it well suited to being a workhorse aircraft.

It is quick, versatile and, even by the standards of a modern-fighter jet, incredibly aerodynamic. It can, for instance, perform STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) on runway lengths of 700 metres, whereas a jumbo jet requires a runway three kilometres long. Its two Eurojet EJ200 Turbofan engines can send it soaring through the air at speeds of up to 1.8 Mach, which is almost twice the speed of sound, more than 1,381 miles per hour, or 1,200 knots. It can also fly at an altitude of 55,000 feet.

In terms of its operational range, according to BAE Systems, the Typhoon can manage about 1,000 nautical miles (roughly 1,150 miles, or 1,850 kilometres) before refuelling is needed. With three external fuel tanks added, this can be extended up to 1,350 nautical miles, though this figure assumes no weapons are being carried. When the plane is fully equipped with weapons as well as three external fuel tanks, the range figure drops back to about 1,000 nautical miles.

Naturally, the complexities of real-world operations mean that range figures like this, as for any aircraft, are approximate and vary considerably based on the circumstances surrounding a given aircraft and mission. There may of course be the option of air-to-air refuelling and, if not, radius of action (the ability of an aircraft to fly out on a mission and return to base, or half of the operational range) might be more relevant.

RAF Typhoon display team
An RAF Typhoon during the Battle of Britain Anniversary in 2021 (Picture: MOD).

Regarding its performance, pilots of the aircraft have said of it:

“You haven’t got to worry about flying the aeroplane because generally – 99 times out of 100 – it’s almost flying itself, and you’re just telling it what you want it to do.”

And:

“It’s always giving me the maximum amount of performance, without me having to worry about limits on the aircraft itself.”

Whereas it began life as an air-to-air-combat jet, it has since expanded to performing other roles like ground attack and air policing as well, and it certainly has the weaponry necessary for these roles.

It has three different types of missiles for engaging other hostile aircraft in battle: the ASRAAM (Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile), the AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) and the very-long-ranged Meteor.

‘Short ranged’, in the case of ASRAAM, means essentially a heat-seeking missile designed to strike other aircraft quickly (over Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound) across a range of just over 16 miles (or 25 kilometres.) ‘Medium ranged’, in the case of the AMRAAM missile, means travelling up to Mach 4 and hitting targets at ranges of between 55 and 75 km (or 34 and 47 miles); and the long range of the Meteor means it can travel at a speed of more than Mach 4 for over 200 kilometres (125 miles.)

The Typhoon also has Paveway bombs and the Brimstone air-to-ground missile, as well as a 27mm cannon, all of which can be used when it performs the ground attack role.

An explainer on the Paveway IV guided bomb

The Paveway IV is also used by the RAF’s premier jet fighter, the F-35B Lightning. It carries two bombs internally along with two air-to-air missiles (AAMs), with a 25mm gun and additional bombs or missiles carried on external pods. These are optional add-ons for a given mission.

Internal storage of weapons is central to the use of F-35B, since it helps enable its stealth capabilities that make it so hard to detect. In fact, this is part of its multi-role capabilities which also involve not only air combat and ground attack but also intelligence gathering and electronic warfare (i.e. using radio, radar or infrared signals, or blocking those of the enemy.)

The B variant of the Lightning can also perform STOVL (Short Take Off and Vertical Landing), making the aircraft ideal for use on an aircraft carrier. Indeed, the RAF has already used the F-35B aboard the UK’s aircraft carriers HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the Royal Navy’s own 809 Squadron is due to start using the F-35B in 2023.

For its part, the US Navy uses the C variant, which can operate on aircraft carriers as well, but via a CATOBAR (catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery) system, while the US Air Force uses the A variant, which operates from conventional runways.

RAF Akrotiri
RAF F-35B Lightning IIs shown at RAF Akrotiri (Picture: MOD).

As far as the RAF goes, four of its squadrons are involved with the aircraft, mostly out of RAF Marham. These are the famous 617 “Dambusters” Squadron, the first British F-35B squadron; 17 and 207 Squadrons, which are both involved in training and evaluation for the F-35B, the former in Edwards Air Force Base in California. Finally, 6 RAF Police (Lightning) Squadron provides security for F-35s based at Marham or on operations overseas.

The F-35 works alongside the Typhoon, with the numbers of F-35s set to increase substantially in future.

According to Wing Commander John Butcher, the high-tech nature of the aircraft’s cockpit makes it easy to use as well as futuristic. It features large informational screens that are like tablets with easily manipulatable data displays that can be adjusted according to the mission:

“When you step into the Lightning, it really does feel like you’re stepping into the future.”

Simon Newton meets F-35B pilot Wing Commander John Butcher in California in 2019

As futuristic as the Lightning may be, the RAF already has a plan for the next generation of fighter jet.

The Tempest is set to join the Lightning and replace the RAF’s Typhoon fleet in 2035. The unmanned fighter will likely fly alongside smaller unmanned planes that could serve as decoys and gather mission data, and these are known as LANCA (Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft.)

Thus, the RAF looks set to remain on the cutting edge of fighter technology into the future.

A comparison of present-day RAF fighter jets:

Aircraft

Length in metres

Speed in knots

Range in nautical miles

Weapons

Typhoon

16

1,190

1,000

Missiles; paveway ii/iv bombs & 27mm gun

F-35B Lightning

15.7

1,057

900

Air-to-air missiles; Paveway bombs & 25mm gun

USAF and RAF
RAF F-35s with USAF B-2 bombers near RAF Fairford (Picture: MOD).

Heritage aircraft

As well as its present-day fighters, the RAF also retains and flies some of its most iconic historical aircraft, or, if you will, the cutting-edge planes of their day.

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) has six Spitfires, two Hurricanes and a Lancaster bomber, as well a Dakota and Chipmunk aircraft. The BBMF’s mission is to use these historical aircraft to promote the modern RAF and its Second World War heritage.

The Spitfire is probably the most iconic of all British aircraft. This is likely a result not only of its participation in the Second World War and its key role in the Battle of Britain in particular, but also because there were so many produced. As the RAF’s website points out, 20,341 Spitfires were made in total, more than any other aircraft.

The Battle of Britain saw the Spitfire twinned with the Hawker Hurricane, which was slower and more rudimentary in design yet, at the same time, easier to build and maintain. Hence, the Hurricane made up the bulk of Britain’s fighter aircraft early on in the war. Between them, the Spitfire and Hurricane took on various Luftwaffe aircraft as they raided Britain, with the Hurricanes usually attacking the slower-moving bombers while the Spitfires engaged the top-line German fighter that protected them -- the Messerschmitt Bf109.

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire and Hurricane
A Spitfire and Hurricane (Picture: MOD).

When Britain in turn launched its own bombing raids, its pre-eminent bomber came to be the Lancaster. This was immortalised by the 1943 Dambusters Raid in which 19 Lancasters flew at low level to avoid radar detection and then emerged over Germany’s Ruhr Valley. Here, they dropped ‘bouncing bombs’ that skipped across water before hitting and blowing apart two key dams (the Möhne and Edersee dams), flooding the area and leading to the damage and destruction of mines, factories and hydroelectric plants. This reduced German industrial output for several months, but the more lasting impact was the legend of the mission, cemented by the audacity of the raid and the skill and courage of the RAF aircrews in 617 Squadron (which, as noted above, now flies the F-35B.)

Hence, the Lancaster too has a place among the aircraft in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Likewise, the supreme importance of Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain, and then the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany, cannot be overstated. The RAF’s maintenance of these key vintage aircraft therefore also helps to maintain the memory of the important missions they flew.

Naturally, the Lancaster could not drop Brimstone laser-guided bombs, and neither the Spitfire nor the Hurricane could take on Messerschmitts with the F-35’s or the Typhoon’s air-to-air missiles. Yet the Lancaster made up for its lack of 21st Century bomb technology by hauling and dropping impressively heavy bomb loads, reaching the point that it could even deliver the 22,000-pound Grand Slam earthquake bomb.

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
A Lancaster bomber seen from above (Picture: MOD).

Likewise, the Spitfire and Hurricane may not have been able to fly at speeds of 1,215 to 1,370 mph, or at heights of 50,000 to 55,000 feet (the maximum speeds and flight ceilings of the F-35B and Typhoon, respectively.) However, they still managed top speeds of 340 to 364 mph (for the Hurricane and Spitfire, respectively), and both could reach a flight ceiling of 34,000 feet – certainly far lower, and slower, than today’s fighter jets, but still impressive by the standards of the time.

With their relative speed, the Hurricane and Spitfire both swooped in and sprayed their targets with eight Browning machine guns mounted in their wings. These were spread across each wing in the Spitfire, giving a wide arc of fire. Meanwhile, the opposite was true in the Hurricane, since its machine guns were clumped together and fired just either side of the propeller. Britannica points out that this had particular advantages when taking on bombers:

“Slower than the Spitfire, the Hurricane fought at a disadvantage to the German Bf 109 in climb and dive but proved to be a potent bomber destroyer, the concentrated fire of its eight machine guns literally sawing Luftwaffe bombers in half on occasion.”

As well as the fighter aircraft, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight also features the C-47, or Dakota. This American-made aircraft was widely used throughout the war and enabled the Allies to drop paratroopers over their intended drop zones (each plane could carry 28), as well as to carry cargo like jeeps and trucks by air.

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
A Dakota (in rear) and a Chipmunk from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (Picture: MOD).

According to Britannia, the normal payload for a Dakota was 5,000 pounds, and up to 7,000 pounds in an emergency -- roughly the same as the larger Flying Fortress. Dakotas were also used to tow gliders like the Horsa glider of Pegasus Bridge fame.

In the case of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the RAF’s Dakota takes part in air displays and is also used to help train pilots and aircrews who will go on to fly the BBMF’s Lancaster bomber.

True to authentic form, the BBMF also makes use of a period training aircraft, or to be precise, two period training aircraft. ‘The Chippies’ are both de Havilland Chipmunks (the RAF variant being the DHC-1 Chipmunk T.Mk 10), which were used  train pilots, both during the Second World War and today. In the context of the BBMF, the Chipmunks allow today’s RAF pilots to get used to tail-wheel aircraft (i.e. those with small wheels at the rear of the aircraft, as was commonplace during World War 2) as well as the air delivery of parts and pilots and the scouting of new venues for displays.

Comparison of WW2-era aircraft used today by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight:

Aircraft

Length in metres

Speed in knots

Range in nautical miles

Weapons

Spitfire (Mk. 1)

9.1

316

343

8 .303-in calibre machine guns

Hawker Hurricane

9.8

295

521

8 .303-in calibre machine guns

Lancaster (Mk. 1)

23

249

2,199

x8 .303-in Browning machine guns (in x3 turrets); bomb load of up to 22,000 lb

Dakota

19.6

135*

1,390

n/a

Chipmunk

 

103*

243

n/a

*Cruise speed

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
A Hurricane shown in 2018 with a Polish Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrum behind (Picture: MOD).

Support aircraft

As well as the combat aircraft of past and present, the RAF has a large range of aircraft that perform various roles supporting its main fighter aircraft.

Some of these are used in ISTAR roles, which stands for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance. The RAF’s website likens this to the eyes and ears of Air Force, as well as of NATO more generally, and these operations are largely based out of RAF Waddington where 3,500 military and civilian personnel work.

One of the RAF’s ISTAR aircraft is the Shadow R1, set to be upgraded starting by 2023, with eight R2s eventually flying with the RAF’s Shadow unit, 14 Squadron. Shadows are modified King Air 350CER aircraft and use high-definition electro-optical and electronic sensors to gather data that can then be analysed onboard during a mission or transmitted elsewhere via satellite. Being a non-combat aircraft, the Shadow does not have weapons, but it does have a DAS (Defensive Aids System) which uses sensors to provide warnings about incoming threats like missiles.

Part of the system is the DIRCM (Directed Infra-Red Countermeasure) which Thales describes as working this way:

“ … the Miysis DIRCM provides 360 degree protection and the ability to defeat multiple threats simultaneously by accurately directing a jamming laser onto the missile’s seeker, confusing its guidance system and steering the missile away from the aircraft.”

As well as the RAF, the Royal Navy also uses King Air 350s but dubs them Avengers.

King Air 350CER
A Shadow R1 (Picture: MOD).

The next plane in the RAF’s ISTAR fleet is the RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft, also known as Airseekers, and of which there are three within the RAF as of 2021. The aircraft is also in use by the Americans and the planes are in fact upgraded as part of a pooling program where maintenance and training for the aircraft are shared between the UK and US.

Rivet Joints are essentially information sponges, with the RAF describing them as soaking up data from communications, radar and electronic systems:

“Operationally proven across the world, including in counter-Daesh missions in the Middle East, the aircraft works by using its sensors to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum.  The mission crew can then forward gathered information in a variety of formats via an extensive communications suite.”

No. 51 Squadron flies the RC-135W Rivet Joint and has been developing as an electronic surveillance unit since the 1960s, so the aircraft is clearly in good hands. They too fly it out of RAF Waddington, with 54 Squadron providing ISTAR training for both 51 and 14 Squadrons.

RAF ISTAR aircraft
An RC-135W Rivet Joint at Nellis Air Force Base Nevada (Picture: MOD).

No. 54 Squadron also functions as an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for the next aircraft, the Poseidon MRA1 (or P-8A Poseidon.) Unlike the other squadrons and aircraft in the ISTAR suite, however, 201 and CXX (120) Squadrons fly the RAF’s nine Poseidon aircraft out of RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland where they perform a maritime patrol role – or at least they will when all nine aircraft have become fully operational.

The Poseidon has a range of different tracking equipment, including acoustic sensors, an IR (infrared) turret and electronic support measures (ESM) and an APY-10 radar that gives high-resolution mapping.

Unusually for other ISTAR aircraft, the Poseidon is also equipped with torpedoes, and given its varied roles, this makes sense. Whereas the aircraft will perform a maritime patrolling role, it will also provide protection for the Royal Navy’s two aircraft carriers HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth and perform an anti-submarine warfare role as well. Of all the ISTAR aircraft, it is also the most long-ranging, with a ferry range of 4,500 miles, or roughly 3,910 nautical miles. It also has the highest service ceiling of all the ISTAR planes, being able to fly at altitudes of 41,000 feet.

RAF ISTAR aircraft
A Poseidon seen taking off (Picture: MOD).

On the other end of the size scale to the larger ISTAR aircraft like the Poseidon the RC-135W Rivet Joint there is the Reaper MQ-9Adrone.

This unmanned aircraft actually performs combat as well as ISTAR roles. While doing the former, it can reach an altitude of 30,000 feet, carrying laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles. When unarmed, meanwhile, the MQ-9A can reach an attitude of 50,000 feet.

While operating in the ISTAR capacity, the MQ-9A has cameras, radar and infrared sensors. As of late 2021, there are 10 Reapers in use by the RAF, the drone being remote operated by two squadrons – 13 Squadron and 39 Squadron. Thirteen Squadron are located at RAF Waddington, from where they fly the Reaper, whereas 39 Squadron are headquartered there but are actually based in Nevada at Creech Air Force Base, where they conduct training and operational missions.

The Reaper is due to be replaced by the Protector, which is due to come into service in 2024 with the ability to more than double the mission time Reapers are capable of. While they fly for 20 hours unarmed, or 12 hours fully loaded with weapons, the Protector will be able to operate for more than 40 hours.

As well as planes and drones, the RAF also has a number of helicopters with which to support their other aircraft, personnel and those in other branches of the Armed Forces.

RAF ISTAR combat drone
A Reaper MQ-9A (Picture: MOD).

The first of these is the Griffin HAR2, of which there are three flown out of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus by 84 Squadron.

The Griffin HAR2 is highly versatile and can serve in a combat support role, transporting six (or if necessary up to eight) fully armed troops. It can also conduct force protection and ISTAR roles.

More often, though, it supports British forces in Cyprus and those in Cyprus more generally by serving in an air-lift, search-and-rescue and fire-fighting capacity. The latter role sees the Griffin employ large Bambi Buckets for carrying then dropping water on fires.

RAF helicopters
A Griffin HAR2 helicopter from 84 Squadron on Exercise with the Army in July 2021 (Picture: MOD).

The RAF also has medium helicopter support in the form of the Puma HC.Mk2. The RAF’s 23 Pumas are flown by 33 and 230 Squadrons, with training provided by 28 Squadron. These squadrons are based at RAF Benson, one of several RAF bases that comes under Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), which coordinates helicopters like the Puma for use across the British Armed Forces.

RAF helicopters
A Puma (in the foreground) and Chinook take part in a commemorative flight over London in November 2021 (Picture: MOD).

In this capacity, it is used for moving equipment, weapons, ammo, troops and casualties, though it too can be employed for non-combatant roles, such as civilian evacuations during disaster relief operations.

Being a medium helicopter, the Puma can carry more than the Griffin – up to 12 fully equipped troops, or 16 passengers more generally, six stretchers with casualties, or up to 2 tonnes of freight.

The Puma itself can also be transported, that is folded up and flown further afield within a C-17 Globemaster, then quickly unloaded and reassembled at the destination. As a combat-capable aircraft, the Puma also has two 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs.)

RAF helicopters
Two Chinooks over a river in Mali (Picture: MOD).

In addition to the Pumas, there are also 60 Mk 4, 5, 6 and 6A Chinooks operating out of RAF Odiham in Hampshire. These enormous helicopters have two full-size rotor blades and can carry up to 55 troops, 10 tonnes of mixed cargo and even underslung vehicles.

They are also armed with two miniguns and one M0D machine gun, all of a 7.62mm calibre.

Because the Chinook fleet is so large, three RAF squadrons fly them – 7, 18 and 27 Squadrons – while 28 Squadron provides training. There is even a Chinook Display Team, and the RAF’s parachute display team the Falcons also use Chinooks, along with the Puma and C-130J Hercules.

RAF Chinook helicopter
27 Squadron tactical evaluation sortie over Dartmoor in 2018 (Picture: MOD).

The Chinook’s impressive lifting capability means that it quite often performs a variety of roles beyond those of combat support. These might be humanitarian missions abroad, or, as the RAF website points out, emergencies within the UK:

“ … in recent years (the Chinooks roles) have included resupplying snowbound farmers in Northern Ireland and moving tons of aggregate to help reconstruct flood defences damaged by winter storms. In August 2019, a Chinook was instrumental in securing a dam on the Toddbrook Reservoir after it became structurally unsound following heavy rain.”

A comparison of RAF support aircraft:

Aircraft

Length in metres

Speed in knots

Range in nautical miles

Shadow R1

14.3

245

2,650

RC-135W Rivet Joint

41.1

470

3,390

Poseidon

39.5

490

3,910

Reaper MQ-9A

10

250

1,000

Griffin HAR2

17.1

140*

375**

Puma Mk2

18.2

167

310

Chinook Mk6

30.1

170 (160 cruising)

400***

*Never-exceed speed.

**Range with maximum payload.

***Range calculated from the radius of action figure of 200 nautical miles for the Mk 6 or CH-47F Chinook.

Thanks to BAE Systems for some assistance with this article.

Cover image: A Typhoon from RAF Lossiemouth in May 2021 (Picture: MOD).

RAF Chinook helicopter
A Chinook overlooking Mali (Picture: MOD).