Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet – A Tutor with Teeth

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Alpha Jet E of the French air force at Čáslav, Czech Republic in 2017.

A New Trainer for a New Generation

The early 1950s showed that dedicated jet powered trainers were required to properly and safely train pilots for jet aircraft. The performance gap between piston engine trainers and first generation jets was simply too great to prepare new pilots for the jets they’d be flying. First generation jets did not tend to have dedicated two seat variations for type specific training and so a new pilot’s first flight in a high performance jet fighter was solo in the early jet age. This resulted in many accidents and unacceptably high attrition in both aircraft and trainee pilots. Thus the idea of the dedicated jet trainer was born.

First generation jet trainers included the Fouga Magister from France, Aero L-29 Delfín from Czechoslovakia, Cessna T-37 from America, Aermacchi MB-326 from Italy, PZL TS-11 Iskra from Poland, BAC Jet Provost from Great Britain, Canadair CT-114 Tutor from Canada and Soko G-2 Galeb from Yugoslavia.

By the early/mid 1960s, the increased performance of second generation jet fighters had created the need for a second generation of jet trainers to match them. An additional demand on the second generation of jet trainers was an increased capability with regards to weapons. While a number of first generation training jets did possess some limited weapons capability and were even capable of light attack in some cases, many of the second generation trainers would be expected to have a weapons capability that would allow them to easily transition between the trainer and light attack roles.

The Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet, which first flew in 1973, is an example of this second generation of jet trainers.

The Franco-German Tango 

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Another angle on the Alpha Jet E at Čáslav in 2017.

The 1950s and 1960s marked the start of cooperation between France and Germany, particularly with regards to military equipment development, that continues to the present.

In the aviation context, prior to the Alpha Jet, the relationship had borne fruit in the form of the Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft and the Transall C-160 tactical transport aircraft.

The Alpha Jet story began in 1967 when France and West Germany entered talks about creating a jointly produced aircraft to fulfil both nations’ need for a new trainer to replace their Fouga Magister and Lockheed T-33 fleets. However, from the start, there were some differences of opinion between the nations regarding exactly what the aircraft would encompass in the scope of its roles.

France wanted a simple jet trainer that was easy to maintain and attractive to the  export market while Germany wanted a light attack capability incorporated into the design as the Luftwaffe wanted to replace their fleet of Fiat G.91 aircraft as well as their Magister fleet. At the suggestion of Germany, it was ultimately agreed that the aircraft would be designed in two distinct versions to accomodate the desires of both nations.

There was  also some disagreement about the engine for the aircraft early on. While both nations specified that the aircraft would be capable of high subsonic speeds, France wished to use the domestically designed SNECMA Turbomeca Larzac turbofan while Germany leaned towards the American made General Electric J-85 turbojet. Using the American engine was not acceptable to France as it would allow America to exercise some control over the exportability of the aircraft. With France refusing to finance the purchase of American engines, Germany agreed to use the Larzac in their version of the aircraft.

The design that would eventually become the Alpha Jet, was put forth by a team made up of the Breguet, Dassault and Dornier companies. Initially known as the TA501, the design was a mixture of existing Breguet and Dornier concepts and competed for the Franco-German trainer requirement against designs from another Franco-German team, SNIAS/MBB, and a Dutch/German proposal from VFW/Fokker. All three aircraft were designed around a pair of Larzac engines.

The TA501 was announced as the winning design in July of 1970.

Through 1971 and 1972, the foundations for building the new aircraft were laid and prototypes for both the French and German variations of the aircraft were constructed.

The French and German prototypes had their maiden flights within months of each other, with the French aircraft flying first in October of 1973 and the German version in January of 1974.

It is also worthy of note that Dassault merged with Breguet in 1971 and the Alpha Jet became the first aircraft to be built under the Dassault-Breguet name.

Taking on the Field 

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Former Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A in Red Bull fleet colours. Seen at Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2017.

The Alpha Jet was one of the first second generation trainers of its class to take to the air and enter production and the first of western design.

While it was beaten into the air by the Aero L-39 Albatros from Czechoslovakia; it did have a distinct though narrow head start on its primary western rival, the Hawker Siddeley (later, BAE Systems) Hawk trainer which first flew in August of 1974.

Though it flew before the Hawk, the British aircraft entered service before the Alpha Jet. This should not come as a surprise as the Alpha Jet was a multinational project while the Hawk was fully British. The logistics of Alpha Jet production were more complex as the workshare was split between Dassault-Breguet in France (front and centre fuselage), Dornier in West Germany (rear fuselage, tail and wings) and SABCA in Belgium (nose and wing flaps).

While the Alpha Jet and Hawk have been frequently compared to each other over the years, they really are very evenly matched machines. When looking at the lists of user nations for the two types, it becomes quite clear that historical diplomatic ties to the aircrafts’ respective country of origin may have had more to do with which aircraft a nation chose than aircraft performance did. The Alpha Jet did well with nations in northern Africa that were former French colonies and kept strong ties to France while many nations who chose the Hawk had stronger historic ties the Great Britain.

The Alpha Jet had certain advantages over the hawk including a better thrust to weight ratio, higher cruising speed, higher operational ceiling and a stronger airframe.

The Alpha Jet’s high set wing also allowed it to carry some larger weapons and other underwing stores that there was inadequate ground clearance for under the low set wing of the Hawk. The Alpha Jet’s ability to carry the large French made Exocet anti-ship missile is one example of this.

The Hawk does have the advantages of longevity, Alpha Jet production ceased in 1991 while Hawk production continues to the present, and higher capacity for upgrading. However, the Alpha Jet has done well for itself on second hand markets in refurbished forms. Ex-Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A variants were particularly popular with second hand users after Germany retired and sold off their fleet through the 1990s.

Additionally, former military Alpha Jets have found favour with a number of civilian operators as either aerobatic display aircraft or in the Aggressor role in training air combat tactics to military fighter pilots.

Baring the Teeth  

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Former Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A in Red Bull colours at Pardubice in 2016.

When it comes to sending the Alpha Jet into battle, Nigeria has most certainly been the aircraft’s biggest user.

Extensive use of Nigerian Alpha Jets was made during the First Liberian Civil War which lasted from 1989 to 1997.

Since 2013, Nigerian Alpha Jets have been used against insurgent actions of the Boko Haram terrorist group which is active in the northern regions of Nigeria as well as areas of neighboring countries.

During the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, Alpha Jets of the Qatari air force were used for coastal patrol to protect against potential Iraqi beach invasion.

Moroccan Alpha Jets were used in the counter insurgency role during the Western Sahara War which lasted from 1975 to 1991.

When fitted for attack roles, the Alpha Jet is able to carry a respectable range of guided or unguided weaponry under the wings as well as American made AIM-9 Sidewinder or French made R.550 Magic air-to-air missiles for self defense. It can also be fitted with 27mm Mauser or 30mm DEFA cannon pods on the fuselage centreline. A reconnaissance pod was another option for mounting on the centreline.

Some variants of the aircraft are fitted with laser targeting equipment thus allowing them to designate targets for other aircraft carrying laser guided bombs.

The Alpha Jet Family 

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Portuguese air force Alpha Jet A seen at Zeltweg, Austria in 2013.

Alpha Jet production lasted from 1973 to 1991 and a total 512 were made with more than half being exported.

Generally speaking, the aircraft family can be divided into three generations:

First Generation

The first generation consisted quite simply of the original A and E models built to German and French standards respectively.

Owing to the German desire for light attack, the Alpha Jet A was a more complex aircraft than the E model from a standpoint of avionics.

Externally, the most immediately visible difference between the two models was the nose. The A model had a smooth pointed nose while the E model had a blunt nose with strakes on either side.

The first generation also included Belgium’s Alpha Jet B model, though it was a standard E model when it entered service.

Second Generation

Three models of the aircraft represent the second generation: MS1, MS2 and Alpha Jet 2

The MS1 was the designation given to the Egyptian export version of the E model trainer. These aircraft were assembled in Egypt from kits supplied by Dassault-Breguet.

The MS2 was an attack optimised version based on the MS1. It included many improvements to avionics as well as more powerful engines.

The Alpha Jet 2 was a ground attack optimised version of the E model that incorporated aspects of the MS2.

Third Generation

This generation never really existed beyond paper concepts. It included the Alpha Jet ATS and Lancier variants.

The ATS (Advanced Trainer System) was to be a fully modernised version with full glass cockpits and other modern avionics.

Lancier was to be the attack optimised variation and was to have included all the upgrades of the ATS version plus an attack radar.

Alpha Jet B+

In 2000, Belgium initiated an upgrade program for their Alpha Jet B fleet.

This upgrade included modern flight controls and heads up display along with a modernised navigation system among other improvements.

In the late 2000s, France had a number of their E models upgraded to the B+ standard.

The Alpha Jet Today 

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Another Portuguese Alpha Jet A at Zeltweg in 2013.

The Alpha Jet has flown in the air forces of 12 countries and has found its way onto civilian registers in Austria, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the USA.

It has served as the mount for military demonstration teams from Egypt, France and Portugal.

In civilian service, it is used for aeobatics displays, but is also highly valued as a platform for research and test flights as well as an aggressor aircraft for modern military fighter pilots to fly against in air combat training.

As of late 2017, the Alpha Jet continues to serve most of the military operators who selected it. However, the type’s European military users are seriously considering replacing their Alpha Jets or retiring them without replacement.

Whether in civil or military hands, it looks like the Alpha Jet will still be taking to the air for a while yet. How many chances are left for the public to see the type perfom is another matter entirely.

Learning More

This link will take you to a brief history of the Alfa Jet on Dassault Aviation’s web site:

https://www.dassault-aviation.com/en/passion/aircraft/military-dassault-aircraft/alpha-jet/

This link will take you to the Alpha Jet page of the Red Bull fleet:

http://www.flyingbulls.at/en/fleet/alpha-jet/

This link will take you to a photo essay of Alpha Jet based demonstration teams of the Portuguese air force (Some great pictures here!):

https://maptia.com/joseantunes/stories/20-years-of-alpha-jet

This link will take you to a short article about the arrival of civil registered Alpha Jets in Australia and their intended use as aggressor aircraft there:

https://downunderaviationnews.wordpress.com/new-alpha-jets-providing-operations-support-for-royal-australian-air-force-training/

While slightly dated, this page will give you some information about Belgian Alpha Jets:

http://www.air-passion.be/fas/report/alpha%20jet/article.htm

This link is to an article about Nigerian air force Alpha Jet operations during the First Liberian Civil War:

https://beegeagle.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/ecomog-air-operations-during-the-liberian-civil-war-a-brief-overview/

 

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Tupolev Tu-154 “Careless” – Tupolev’s Trijet

Gaps to be Filled 

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This Slovak Government Flying Service Tu-154M was seen over Kunovice, Czech Republic in June of 2017. This was one of its last flights before retirement.

The former Soviet Union had great success in the early years of jet based airliner service with their Tupolev Tu-104. The Tu-104 was the world’s second jet to enter regular airline service after Great Britain’s DeHavilland Comet. While both machines had their share of imperfections associated with being the first of a new breed of aircraft, the Tu-104 had more success than the Comet in providing sustained and dependable service during the 1950s due to the British aircraft being grounded from 1954 to 1958 after a series of accidents. For a period in the late 1950s, the Tu-104 was the only jet airliner in regular scheduled service and was a message, wherever it went, that the west was falling behind in the jetliner stakes.

With the return of the Comet to the skies in 1958 and the arrival of France’s Sud Aviation Caravelle to airline service in 1959, the jetliner race was back on.

By the early 1960s, two new Soviet airliner designs had flown for the first time. The twin jet Tupolev Tu-134 had short haul routes as its target while the four engine Ilyushin Il-62 was designed for the long range intercontinental routes. Both aircraft entered airline service in 1967 and the Tu-154 flew for the first time in 1968.

The Tu-154 was introduced to airline service in 1972, filling the medium range gap between the Tu-134 and Il-62 and becoming a workhorse for Aeroflot and many other carriers in nations which came under Soviet influence in the Cold War period and continued to serve many of them well past the fall of Socialism.

Neither a Copy nor a Competitor 

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Another angle on the Slovak Tu-154M; showing the trijet arrangement, T tail and landing gear pods on the wings that are hallmarks of the design.

As was the western habit in the prevailing “us and them” mindset of the Cold War; there was no shortage of people dismissing the Tu-154 as an “inferior copy” of western trijets such as the Boeing 727 from America and the Hawker Siddeley Trident from Great Britain. Indeed, when the Tu-154 prototype made an appearance at the 1969 Paris Air Salon, western observers were brutally critical of every aspect of it. In the NATO codenaming system for Soviet aircraft, the Tu-154 was dubbed “Careless”.

However, such comparisons were an extreme case of the west grasping at straws to discredit the east. The Tupolev trijet was really in a class by itself and was produced for much longer than either the 727 or Trident.

Beyond having a similar general design, the three aircraft had nothing in common. The American and British trijets had both been in airline service for at least half a decade before the Tu-154 first flew and had been designed specifically to compete in the burgeoning short haul feeder line market that was opening up in the early 1960s. By comparison, the Tu-154 was designed as mid range liner to most immediately satisfy projected requirements of the Soviet national airline, Aeroflot, before anything else.

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The Tu-154 had six wheel main landing gear units to better distribute the aircraft’s weight on improvised and unprepared surfaces.

The Tu-154 was designed and built to rigorous specifications that included the ability to operate from austere or improvised runways in the most remote regions of the former Soviet Union. Even before it first flew, things were being asked of it that had not been asked of jet airliners before. For a jet airliner to operate from a gravel or packed earth strip was unthinkable at the time the Tu-154 was being designed, and yet such abilities were specified for it.

Part of why the Tu-154 had such abilities in its specification was so it could replace the Antonov An-10 and Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop airliners which had been serving those remote areas.

The Tu-154 was built as a trijet for no other reason than that it didn’t need four engines to do what was wanted of it. Aeroflot’s four engine jetliner requirement was well filled by the Ilyushin Il-62.

The Tu-154 also put performance ahead of efficiency. With a top speed of 975 kmh, the Tu-154 was one of the swiftest airliners ever put into regular scheduled service. It also could operate at altitudes above most other civilian air traffic.

Further testament to the Tu-154’s flight performance was the choice to use it as a landing trainer for cosmonauts preparing to crew the failed Soviet space shuttle, the Buran. The Tu-154 was capable of the same steep angle descents that the cosmonauts would face when landing the Buran.

In short, the Tu-154 was a much more specialised aircraft than initial appearances let on and the west simply had nothing that was fully comparable.

Moving the Masses 

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Tu-154 B2 seen preserved at the Aeropark museum in Budapest, Hungary in 2015.

It did not take long for the Tu-154 to find its way into widespread service after its first Aeroflot passenger flight in 1972. The aircraft formed the backbone of not only Aeroflot, but also a number of airline fleets in the Eastern Bloc and in Soviet friendly states.

In a flying career spanning approximately three and half decades, the Tu-154 served the militaries and numerous airlines of no fewer than forty countries.

In airliner form, the Tu-154 cabin could be configured for two class, single class or high density passenger arrangements. The high denisty layout was accomplished by removing the aircraft’s galley.

A number of the aircraft were also converted for air freight duties.

In military circles, the Tu-154 found favour as a VIP transport and many Eastern Bloc leaders used the type as their personal transport.

Even after the fall of Socialism, the Tu-154 remained in regular airline service for some time. The final scheduled Tu-154 flight from Europe was conducted by Belavia in 2015, from Geneva, Switzerland to Minsk, Belarus.

The very last European based Tupolev Tu-154s belonged to the Slovak Government Flying Service and these were retired in summer of 2017.

As of 2017, the only confirmed airline to still be using the Tu-154 for passenger service is North Korea’s Air Koryo.

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The very powerful, but very inefficient, Kuznetsov NK-8 engine which powered early members of the Tu-154 family

Increased availability of more efficient airliners through the 2000s and 2010s and increasingly strict international regulations on exhaust and noise emmissions made Tu-154 operations financially unappealing in many markets and most operators divested themselves of the type in that period.

Later in its life, the aircraft came to world attention in the wake of some very high profile accidents. However, in the bigger picture, for an aircraft of which more than 1,000 were produced and served for more than 30 years, the Tu-154 has an average safety record and is not considered an unsafe aircraft. In fact, a significant number of accidents involving the aircraft were attributable to non-technical factors such as human error, poor weather or runway conditions as well as highjackings. At least five Tu-154s are known to have been shot down.

As airliners go, the Tu-154 is a very solidly built aircraft that has withstood emergency landing situations intact and with no loss of life that would have torn some other airliners apart and most certainly have resulted in fatalities.

The Tu-154 Family 

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Flight deck of the Tu-154 B2 preserved at Aeropark, Budapest.

With a production run spanning from 1968 to 2013 ans 1,026 of the type made, the Tu-154 family consists of four main branches:

Tu-154

The baseline Tu-154 debuted in 1970 and had a capacity for 164 passengers. Production totalled around 40 aircraft.

Tu-154 A

Appearing in 1974, the Tu-154 A improved on the baseline model through increased fuel carriage, more powerful engines, refined flight controls and avionics as well as more flexibility in cabin configurations.

Tu-154 B/B1/B2/S

Produced from 1975, the Tu-154 B and its subvariants featured a new wing of higher strength to replace the wings of earlier variants which were cracking from fatigue. The B series improved the Tu-154 further through an increased maximum take off weight. Several baseline and A models were converted to B standard through wing replacement.

The real drive behind creating the B series of the aircraft was to make it more economical to operate. The Kuznetsov NK-8 engines were very thirsty regardless of the variant being used and the only answer to better ecomonics was to increase passenger load.

The B1 variant was specifically for Aeroflot to increase profits on domestic routes within the Soviet Union. Beyond some minor modification to some systems, it differed little from the B model.

The B2 model was designed to have the high density cabin option via a removable galley. The B2 brought with it additional increases in maximum take off weight. A number of B models were converted to B2 standard. The B2 found favour as a VIP transport as well as an airliner.

The Tu-154 S was a cargo conversion variant based off the B model that featured a strengthened floor and large cargo door on the forward fuselage. A very small number were converted to S standard.

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Former Czech air force Tu-154 M arriving at Kunovice, Czech Republic in 2016 for restoration as a museum exhibit.

Tu-154M

A major change to the Tu-154 came in 1982 with the first flight of the M version.

With the M came new, more efficient engines in the form of the Soloviev D-30. The D-30 gave the aircraft economic performance through lower fuel consumption and increased range that the NK-8 engines had always denied it. The aircraft’s performance was further enhanced by aerodynamic refinements nose to tail. The lower operating costs of the M model gave the Tu-154 a new lease on life with many operators.

The new engines also allowed the Tu-154 to be fitted with hush kits to reduce engine noise. This was something that could not be done with the NK-8 engine and kept the Tu-154 flyable into areas that had increased restrictions on noise emissions. The M models were still allowed to operate, for a while, in places where the B models no longer were permitted.

As with the B model, the M model was liked as a VIP transport and was often referred to as Tu-154 M Lux when configured as such.

The M model formed the basis of some minor versions of the aircraft family that include an electronic intelligence gathering variant, the aforementioned cosmonaut trainer and a one-off variant for exploring alternative fuels.

What Remains and Learning More 

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Former Czech air force Tu-154 M seen partially restored at Kunovice in June of 2017.

As of 2017, less than 50 Tu-154 aircraft are known to still be active on civil or military registers and they are primarily in Russia with a handful scattered between China, Kazakhstan and North Korea. As such, your chances of seeing an active example of the type these days are quite slim and not getting better.

Preserved examples are known to exist in museums in Belarus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Unfortunately, it seems for the present that a good deal of English language information to be found online about the Tu-154 is conflicting, biased or focused on accidents that involved the type. Hopefully, that will change one day.

In the meantime, these articles will give you a couple of first hand insights into what it’s like to fly on the Tu-154 as a passenger:

http://www.airlinereporter.com/2014/05/slovak-force-one-my-first-flight-on-a-russian-tu-154/

http://www.airportspotting.com/tupolev-tu154-scheduled-flight-europe-trip-report/

This article was published in conjunction with the delivery of the very last Tu-154, in 2013, and gives a short historical overview of the aircraft:

http://www.airlinereporter.com/2013/02/last-tupolev-tu-154-delivered-today-six-years-after-production-ceases/