Written by Dave Page
“Any aircraft, any mission.”
This is the supremely confident slogan of one of the most advanced fighter planes in the world. According to Eurofighter.com, it is “The world’s most advanced swing-role combat aircraft providing simultaneously deployable Air-to-Air and Air-to-Surface capabilities” and it has “Demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, high reliability across the globe in all climates. It has been combat proven during operations in Libya, Iraq, and Syria.”
But just exactly what is this incredible aircraft and howl did it come to be? Today we will answer those questions as we take a look into the past, present and predicted future of the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The origins of the typhoon can be traced back as far as 1979 when British Aerospace and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (or MBB) began lobbying their respective governments for a collaborative fighter plane program to be known as the European Combat Fighter or ECF. The duo would become a threesome later that year when French company Dassault also signed up and it was about this time that the name Eurofighter was first used.
Due to a myriad of issues including Dassault demanding creative control of the project, German financial instability brought on by the unification of the east and west, and general disagreements over design and production, it would not be until the 22nd of December 1997 – almost 3 years after the maiden flight of the final prototype – that the defence ministers of the now four involved nations: the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain would finally sign the contract which would give the go-ahead for the production of the Eurofighter.
Six years later, on the 13th of February 2003, the first production Eurofighter would take flight from Manchingin Germany, with Britain and Italy carrying out their maiden flights the very next day. The era of the Eurofighter had begun. So, just what was it about this aircraft that was so revolutionary?
To begin with, the aircraft was intentionally designed to be aerodynamically unstable when travelling at subsonic speeds and actually requires an extremely sophisticated computer system to assist the pilot in maintaining level flight. Although at first glance this may appear to be counter-productive, it actually provides a number of benefits, the most important of which is the ability to perform highly complex aerial manoeuvres when travelling at supersonic speeds.
This enhanced manoeuverability is made possible because, once the aircraft break the sound barrier, the centre of gravity actually shifts towards the rear of the craft making that far more manoeuverable at higher speeds.
In addition to this, the instability actually considerably reduces air resistance which allows the typhoon to maintain supersonic flight without the use of afterburners. This considerably reduces the aircrafts heat profile making it more difficult to detect which is an extremely desirable trait in any military aircraft.
This prolonged supersonic cruising is made possible bythe two EJ200 engines. Developed specifically for the Eurofighter by EUROJET Turbo Gmbh, an international consortium consisting of MTU, Rolls-Royce, Avio Aero and ITP Aero. These engines are each capable of producing13,500 lbF of force without using afterburners and 20,000 lbF with afterburners.
This extraordinary power gives the Eurofighter a top speed of 1515 Miles per hour or approximately twice the speed of sound. Perhaps surprisingly, these engines were not just designed with speed in mind.
Constructed out of 15 fully interchangeable modules, they are considerably easier to work on and repair than engines from other aircraft. The integrated health monitoring and life cycle monitoring capabilities also make fault diagnosis and the detection of potential future issues far less time consuming.
Although these engines are among the quietest in their class, making the Eurofighter a comparatively silent aircraft, they are by no means, actually quiet. Whilst carrying out research for this post, we spoke with a former Senior Air Craftsman “SAC” and he had this to say about the time he spent refuelling the aircraft:
“My job was aircraft refuelling. And, on one occasion, I was doing something called a hot refuel. A hot refuel is when go out, drag your hoses out, the engineer turns up and the replacement pilot turns up. The aircraft lands, manoeuvres around to where you have your hoses, the pilot jumps out, the new pilot jumps in and the aircraft gets refuelled and then takes off again. This process takes about 10 minutes.
“That is why it is called a hot refuel. The idea is in a conflict situation you need to be able to turn the aircraft around that quickly. Provided that the previous pilot has not expended any of the ammunition, the plane can land, switch pilots, refuel and be flying again within 10 minutes. On this occasion, just before the plane landed, I realised that I had forgotten my ear defenders.Obviously, you are only 10 meters away from this thing and it is loud! Exceptionally loud! So loud that it is only possible to communicate via hand gestures during the process. The resulting damage to my hearing was so bad that I was actually transferred to another base whilst it recovered. Obviously, I never explained to my superiors that it had been due to my lack of ear protection.”
Although not primarily designed as a stealth plane, The Eurofighter does possess several features which are designed to make it less detectable. According to some early promotional material, “The aircraft is built with advanced composite materials to deliver a low radar profile and strong airframe. Only 15% of the aircraft’s surface is metal, delivering stealth operation and protection from radar-based systems”.
The latest models are also equipped with the new “Praetorian defensive aids sub-system” which, according to its manufacturer, ”employs a range of electronic countermeasures, allowing it to digitally hide its signature, or to generate radar noise to confuse enemy radar operators”.
Aside from all this, it is perhaps the Eurofighter’s own sensor capabilities that are the most impressive. The PIRATE Infra-red Search and Track (IRST) system is capable of both tracking and targeting multiple enemy aircraft through the use of passive sensors. These sensors are designed to lock onto the heat signatures of opposing aircraft and, as such, do not emit any detectable energy that could potentially give away the Eurofighter’s position. Once a target has been acquired, be it in the air, on land or water, pilots have at their disposal an impressive array of weaponry from which to choose.
For close up encounters, the fighter has an internally mounted Mauser BK27mm gun which is capable of firing a wide range of ammunition types including air to air, high explosive, air to ground and armour piercing rounds at 1,700 rounds per minute. In addition to this, the Eurofighter is also capable of carrying a mix of up to 12 different types of missiles and bomb including the MBDA Storm Shadow / Scalp EG stand-off cruise missile and the MBDA Brimstone anti-armour missile, both of which have proven their effectiveness on countless occasions.
On paper, this is all very impressive, but how effective would this weapon system be in a real combat environment?
Between 2003 and 2005 the Eurofighter Typhoon was introduced into service to general acclaim. According to one Italian pilot who participated in Eurofighter air patrols during the 2006 Winter Olympics, “The Typhoon is in a different league. Nothing I had flown previously could have possibly prepared me for the incredible speed and agility that this aircraft is capable of.”
In an interview for Hush-Kit, an aviation magazine, SteveFormoso, a Typhoon pilot, remarked in response to the question “what were your first impressions of flying the typhoon?”
“The thrust that the Typhoon has is ferocious, something that I don’t personally think you ever get used to though the G Force is brutal. The fact that you can ‘back stick’ the controls and know that the aircraft will limit the G means that you can pull straight to 9 G and trust me – that hurts every single time!”
The prolonged exposure to such high levels of G-force presents a serious problem for these pilots. In order to remain conscious, they must wear special flight suits which automatically inflate as G forces increase. Without these suits literally squeezing blood back up to the brain, a pilot experiencing high levels of G-force would be unconscious in a matter of seconds.
But perhaps the highest praise of the Eurofighter came from the former American Air Force Chief of Staff John P. Jumper who is the only person that has flown both the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F-22 Raptor, arguably the most advanced stealth fighter in the world.
“The Eurofighter is certainly, as far as smoothness of controls and the ability to pull (and sustain high G forces), very impressive. The avionics, the color moving map displays, etc.—all absolutely top notch. The manoeuvrability of the airplane in close-in combat was also very impressive.”
Although, as previously mentioned, the Eurofighter has been successfully deployed in Libya, Iraq and Syria, its main job, in the United Kingdom at least, is as a “QRA” or Quick Reaction Response. A team of Eurofighter pilots is on call 24 hours a day ready to respond to any potential threat.
According to the gov.uk website, in an article from 2012, Quick Reaction Response operates out of two separate bases in order to maximise efficiency. “Leuchars generally covers the northern sector, while Coningsby provides QRA in the south, which includes looking after London and events such as the Olympics. Southern QRA transferred temporarily to RAF Northolt in West London during the Games to add to the mix of military assets ensuring their safety.”
Flight Lieutenant Noel Rees of 29 (Reserve) Squadron explains that, “At the start of the scaled QRA response, civilian air traffic controllers might see on their screens an aircraft behaving erratically, not responding to their radio calls, or note that it’s transmitting a distress signal through its transponder. Rather than scramble Typhoons at the first hint of something abnormal, a controller has the option to put them on a higher level of alert, ‘a call to cockpit’. In this scenario the pilot races to the hardened aircraft shelter and does everything short of starting his engines. From this posture a controller can monitor a situation knowing that a scramble can be conducted in moments.”
Just such a scramble made the news in 2016 when two Eurofighters were dispatched from RAF Coningsby to intercept an Air France passenger plane which was not responding due to a radio communication problem. According to newsroom.com, as a result of the sonic boom caused by the aircraft travelling at supersonic speeds: “Houses shook as the planes flew over Yorkshire to identify the unresponsive aircraft and accompany it into land at Newcastle airport.” Although aircraft are not usually permitted to fly at supersonic speeds when travelling overland, this rule is understandably dropped in any situation where there may be an active threat. This particular incident would turn out to be nothing sinister. Our previously mentioned source told us that: “it is not uncommon for QRA to be dispatched to intercept military aircraft from other countries who, for whatever reason, have unexpectedly strayed into UK airspace. The Typhoons are used to ensure that they leave promptly with a minimum of fuss.”
Although the Eurofighter is undoubtedly an incredible machine, it also comes with an incredible cost. In addition to the initial price tag of approximately $90 million or about £74.5 million, the running costs are simply astronomical. Our source told us that “during 2009, me and some of the guys sat down and worked out just how much it costs to keep one of these planes going. Taking into account the price of jet fuel, engineers wages, pilots wages, air traffic controllers and everything. The number we came up with was approximately £100,000 per hour. Remember, this was in 2009. I don’t know how much jet fuel costs now but you can bet that it is considerably more expensive than it was then.”
Partly for cost-cutting reasons and partly for logistics, in 2014, Quick Reaction Response was permanently relocated from Leuchars to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. Regardless of these costs, the Eurofighter does not appear to be going away any time soon. With no serious all-round contender, plus the fact that it is constantly undergoing both hardware and software upgrades to help keep it at the cutting edge, the Eurofighter typhoon is predicted to remain in action until at least 2040 and possibly beyond.