Mad About Science:

American Warplanes

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Gonna’ take you right into the danger zone with this post. Warplanes are freaking awesome, like I can’t even tell you how awesome.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a combat pilot when I grew up. I got to be pretty stellar in every simulation I played, but I also liked bacon, and I also liked spending more time than I care to admit in front of gaming consoles, two things that quickly tank your chances to fly one of these magnificent planes before you even get to the academy.

Nevertheless, you don’t have to be a pilot to enjoy how cool the planes are. Let’s take off!

Perhaps the most iconic warplane of the ‘80s and ‘90s is a plane that’s still in use today, although it has long been nearing the end of its life and we’ve been scrambling for at least a decade to replace our fleet.

The F/A-18 Hornet is the plane that the Blue Angels use, and the plane that every ‘90s kid that watched Independence Day wanted to fly when they grew up. Designed by Boeing, it is classified as a fourth-generation fighter jet capable of reaching a top speed of Mach 1.8, or 1,190 mph, nearly twice the speed of sound.

The F/A-18 was first used in 1986, when President Reagan condemned Libya of the Berlin discotheque bombing, and retaliated with a series of airstrikes against Libya. Since then, the Hornet has seen use in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 War in Iraq.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, though it’s been nicknamed and widely called the Warthog, is a funny looking plane. It’s not quite as sleek or sexy as a fighter, but its funniness disappears the moment it opens fire on you. The plane was built around the GAU-8 Avenger, a rotary cannon (think: Gatling Gun ‘roided out.) that spits out up to 4,200 rounds per minute, with each round being 30mm. That’s like something twice the width of your thumb, made of metal, falling out of the sky at a little over 1,000 meters per second headed straight for your face.

The Warthog is used mostly to counter tanks, and it does a great job of it.

There is a civilian counterpart to this plane, which essentially means the Air Force gutted all military components, weapons, avionics and oxygen and replaced them with civilian versions (minus weapons) and scientific equipment. Can you imagine having the job of flying that beast?

The F/A-22 Raptor, until just a few years ago, was the most expensive warplane ever developed, with a research cost of $66.7 billion, and an individual plane cost of $150 million. Only 195 were ever built, with 8 of those being test vehicles.

The Raptor hasn’t seen very much use in combat, and this conundrum has been noted by top military brass. The nations we built this plane to counter in air-to-air combat, Russia and China, have too much to gain from economic ties to us to warrant waging full-scale war, thus leaving us with a machine of incredible agility and power that … pretty much just sits in the garage. It’s like owning a Lamborghini in North Idaho. Sure, you have the best car in town, but why on Earth would you drive it out here?

Either way, the Raptor deserves an honorable mention. It is the most advanced warplane in active service right now, able to achieve Mach 2 with afterburners, stealth capabilities and the most powerful and precise avionics on the planet. It saw limited use during the Iraq War, exclusively on ground strikes, because, well, there really wasn’t an air force to fight.

The most unique thing about the Raptor is how the flight computers interact with the cockpit and the helmet, offering a real time HUD, or Heads-Up Display, that tracks things for the pilot, such as enemy craft, objectives—pretty much all that junk you barely pay attention to while playing video games, but is really important when you’re actually being shot at.

I was planning on covering the new F-35, the cutting edge of warplane design, but after quite a bit of reading, all ends seemed to lead to a single point: It’s a grotesquely expensive project to develop the most advanced piece of war machinery in the history of mankind to counter threats that don’t even seem to exist.

The military is actually in talks now to develop a jet to replace the F-35 within the next 30 years. These are called Sixth Generation Fighters. While there’s not a lot of info on them, yet, they’re expected to be extremely fast, completely stealthy, capable of using traditional ballistic projectiles, missiles and even lasers.

That’s right.

The USAF wants to make an X-wing.

While The Outer Space Treaty (1967) prohibits WMDs from being placed in outer space, or the claiming of celestial bodies in national interests, it doesn’t expressly limit the use of conventional weapons, such as ballistics (counterintuitive in space), missiles or lasers would be equipped on these cutting-edge fighters.

As long as no one decides to build a planet-busting Death Star, I think we’ll be okay!

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