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The evolution of jet fighters

It is incredible, but thinking of it, modern jet fighters are extremely new. The first jet fighter dates back from the 40s, it was the Messerchmitt Me262, truly operational in 1944. And if we look at the F-22, or the F-35, it is amazing to see the step that has been taken in the development of aviation and jet fighters. We are now at the 5th generation of aircrafts. Jet fighters have more generations than people. And the scale of progress has been enormous.

The 1st generation of aircrafts dates from the 40s to mid50s. They are subsonic jet fighters. They differed little from their piston-engined counterparts in appearance, and many employed unswept wings. Guns remained the principal armament. The impetus for the development of turbojet-powered aircraft was to obtain a decisive advantage in maximum speed. Top speeds for fighters rose steadily throughout World War II as more powerful piston engines were developed, and had begun approaching the transonic flight regime where the efficiency of piston-driven propellers drops off considerably.

The 2nd generation of jet fighters are from the mid 50s to mid 60s. The development of second-generation fighters was shaped by technological breakthroughs, lessons learned from the aerial battles of the Korean War, and a focus on conducting operations in a nuclear warfare environment. Technological advances in aerodynamics, propulsion and aerospace building materials (primarily aluminium alloys) permitted designers to experiment with aeronautical innovations, such as swept wings, delta wings, and area-ruled fuselages. Widespread use of afterburning turbojet engines made these the first production aircraft to break the sound barrier, and the ability to sustain supersonic speeds in level flight became a common capability amongst fighters of this generation. Among these jet fighters are the Mirage III, the English Electric Lightning, or the Mig 21F. Some of these aircrafts are even available for some jet fighter rides.

The 3rd generation of jet fighters dates from the mid 60s to the 70s. The third generation witnessed continued maturation of second-generation innovations, but it is most marked by renewed emphases on maneuverability and traditional ground-attack capabilities. Growth in air combat capability focused on the introduction of improved air-to-air missiles, radar systems, and other avionics. While guns remained standard equipment (early models of F-4 being a notable exception), air-to-air missiles became the primary weapons for air superiority fighters. Among these fighter jets are the Phantom F-4, the F-15, and the British Aerospace Sea Harrier.

The 4th generation of jet fighters date from the 70s to the 90s. Fourth-generation fighters continued the trend towards multirole configurations, and were equipped with increasingly sophisticated avionics and weapon systems. Other innovative technologies introduced in fourth-generation fighters include pulse-Doppler fire-control radars (providing a “look-down/shoot-down” capability), head-up displays (HUD), “hands on throttle-and-stick” (HOTAS) controls, and multi-function displays (MFD), all of which have become essential equipment. Composite materials in the form of bonded aluminum honeycomb structural elements and graphite epoxy laminate skins began to be incorporated into flight control surfaces and airframe skins to reduce weight. Another revolution came in the form of a stronger reliance on ease of maintenance, which led to standardisation of parts, reductions in the numbers of access panels and lubrication points, and overall parts reduction in more complicated equipment like the engines. Among these jet fighters are the Tornado, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, The Su-27 Flanker and the Mirage2000.

And now we are in the 5th Generation of jet fighters, with aircrafts such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35. The fifth generation was ushered in by the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor in late 2005. Currently the cutting edge of fighter design, fifth-generation fighters are characterized by being designed from the start to operate in a network-centric combat environment, and to feature extremely low, all-aspect, multi-spectral signatures employing advanced materials and shaping techniques. Maneuver performance remains important and is enhanced by thrust-vectoring, which also helps reduce takeoff and landing distances. Supercruise may or may not be featured; it permits flight at supersonic speeds without the use of the afterburner. A key attribute of fifth-generation fighters is very-low-observables stealth.

What is going to be the future? We do not know but seeing the evolution of jet fighters on such a short scale of time, we are very excited about what they will be, and especially how they will perform.



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