Swinging but not winning – the AA-107 jet trainer

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Australia’s best looking aircraft was a failed collaboration with Britain. Its story tells us of the challenges of training fast jet pilots on the late 1960s.

The pace of aviation development during the Cold War posed a conundrum for Air Forces at the time. Aircraft manufacturers promised a new wave of technology that would deliver unforeseen performance, especially for interceptors and strike aircraft. During the 1960s, the next generation of fast jets promised Mach Two speed,  would be equipped with variable geometry wings, and have to operate anywhere between 50 to 65,000 feet.

One of the central challenges for these Air Forces was the job of training pilots to operate these planned aircraft. At the time, flying training schools offered a relatively benign introduction to jet flying for new pilots, with aircraft like the Jet Provost, Vampire, Fouga Magister and T-33 Shooting Star. A new generation of fast combat jets would require jet trainers that would offer greater performance, easing a pilot’s transition to complicated (and expensive) supersonic aircraft.

During the 1960s, two different approaches were taken for development the next generation of jet trainers. Some were largely a natural evolution of the previous types – subsonic aircraft that could be operated cheaply and still offer good performance, such as the Dornier/Dassault/Bregeut Alpha Jet; the Aermacchi MB339; and the Hawker Siddeley (now BAe) Hawk.

The other approach however was to develop training aircraft that would give student pilots an experience of supersonic flight regimes. The United States Air Force accomplished this through the Northrop T-38 Talon, whilst the Soviet Union created the MiG-21UB, with both types being simplified variants of frontline fighters. Whilst supersonic trainers meant sacrificing the benign handling qualities usually found in training aircraft, it also promised to reduce the amount of time spent converting pilots onto frontline combat aircraft.

The Thunder Down Under

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was one such air arm faced with the issue of ‘subsonic versus supersonic’ training requirements in the 1960s. The Aermacchi MB326 jet trainer (fondly known as the Macchi) was introduced in the middle of the decade to replace both the piston-engine Winjeel basic trainer and the twin-seat Vampire jet trainer. The idea was that pilots would conduct an all-through jet pilot course on the MB326 before posting to an operational type, but by 1968, the RAAF had re-instituted the Winjeel as a basic trainer. The Macchi was left as an advanced pilot trainer, from which pilots would graduate to operational flying – whether it be large aircraft like the Hercules, Caribou, Orion; helicopters like the Iroquoisl or the fast jet fleet.

For that fast jet workforce, there was still the issue of transitioning pilots from the straight-wing Macchi to Mach Two aircraft. In 1965, the Dassault Mirage III began its entry to RAAF service, and in 1967, Australia’s Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) proposed a tiny delta jet trainer called the CA-31, covering the training gap between the Macchi and the Mirage. The CA-31 was passed over, but CAC didn’t give up hope. Instead, they took another tact – proposing a jet trainer with a variable-geometry wing (better known as swing wing).

Adopting a swing wing made relative sense in the late 1960s. The majority of the world’s western Air Forces had ordered, or were developing, a range of jet interceptors and strike aircraft with the design. France had the Mirage G. The United States had the F-14 and the F-111 (the latter of which was on order for the RAAF). Britain had partnered with France on the Anglo-French Variable Geometry strike jet, from which France would drop out, leaving Britain to take to Germany and Italy as the Panavia Tornado. Swing wings promised aircraft with swept-back wings to deliver high-speed on low-level strike missions, or high-altitude intercepts. With the wings swept forward, their low-speed handling qualities improved, shortening take off and landing rolls. The prospect of all of these aircraft being developed almost assured they would be exported widely abroad throughout the 1970s, which created some expectation that swing wings a common technology around the world.

With that mindset, CAC’s management could have been forgiven for thinking a variable geometry trainer was a winner, especially if it saved flying hours in a more expensive and complicated frontline type. A jet trainer would have lower operating costs, be less complex, and allow frontline aircraft to focus more of their flying on operational duties. What was more, the aircraft would have potential use as a light attack aircraft, again relieving larger frontline types for more complication missions. Perhaps having learned its lesson from launching the CA-31 as a solo venture, CAC partnered itself with the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) on this project.

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The AA-107 mock-up (Friends of AA-107 Facebook Group)

Design and Performance

Sometime in the late 1960s, BAC and CAC produced their design for the AA-107. From a purely aesthetic perspective, it’s arguably the most attractive post-war aircraft to have been designed by an Australian, even if it was a joint program.

From external appearances, the forward section of the AA-107 looks like an Alpha Jet – a pointed nose and stepped-cockpit, allowing good forward visibility for an instructor in the backseat. Aft of the cockpit is a slim fuselage, not unlike single-engine light fighters of its time. The swing-wings are mounted on a narrow-glove on top of the fuselage, and the horizontal and vertical stabilisers are swept to an angle also optimised for supersonic flight.

The planned powerplant for the AA-107 was the Rolls Royce Adour, which would provide approximately 6000lbs of thrust. If fitted with an afterburner, the Adour would have produced 8000lbs of thrust.

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The AA-107 in Ballarat (Mike Forsberg) 

There’s little reason to expect the AA-107 would have been fitted with an internal armament or avionics beyond basic radios and navigation systems, given its primary focus as a trainer. Its size however might have permitted the installation of a radar, if the customer required. There’s little real estate on the external fuselage however for mounting pylons – at a stretch, the AA-107 could probably take two pylons on the underside of the fuselage, which could have allowed the carriage of gunpods, bombs, IR-guided missiles, or fuel tanks. Each wing could potentially have been fitted with a single swivel-pylon, again allowing the carriage of external fuel tanks or munitions.

Given its powerplant and design, we can likely infer the AA-107 would have been capable of flying in excess of Mach One at altitude. Provided the swing-wing mechanisms were developed without complications (which can be a big ‘if’), the AA-107 would have granted pilots an appreciation of different performance regimes before transitioning to bigger swing-wing jets like the F-111 or Tornado. That includes exposing pilots to high-speed flight at low-level, as well as correctly transitioning through various wing-sweep angles.

Contrasting with the Hawk, the AA-107 would have been faster, but handicapped by poorer range and manoeuvrability. Both aircraft are powered by the same Adour engine, however the AA-107’s size and swing wings would have made it heavier (the Hawk weighs in at about 9880lbs or 4.5 tonnes empty; 20,000lbs or 9.1 tonnes maximum take off). I could find no other performance figures for the AA-107, suffice to say it could probably have carried a useful payload of 6600lbs or 3 tonnes, again based on the Hawk’s performance.

Too much, too late

When viewed on its own, it’s hard to imagine why the AA-107 didn’t stir some interest within prospective Air Forces, or indeed, the respective British and Australian Governments. It’s a very attractive design, and could potentially have addressed some very real training issues in the early 1970s. The bigger picture however illustrates the AA-107 being doomed to fail from its outset.

In 1970, Britain had already treaded the path of a jointly-developed jet trainer that offered high performance and a light attack capability – the Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar. By the time of its first flight in 1968, the Jaguar program had abandoned any intent of being an advanced trainer, instead falling victim to mission creep that led the aircraft to emerge as a dedicated low-altitude strike jet (which, arguably, neither the French nor British really needed, considering what else their Air Forces were equipped with at the time).

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The Jaguar still proved an operational success (Wiki Commons)

Throughout the AA-107’s development, a number of subsonic jet trainers were also coming into being – namely, the Hawker Siddeley Hawk, the Dassault/Dornier/Bregeut Alpha Jet, and the Aermacchi MB339. Because they had foregone any requirement for supersonic performance or swing wings, their development was significantly quicker, easier, and cheaper, and as such, made for extremely attractive fighter-trainers for prospective Air Forces. Indeed, all three types have gone on to successful export careers.

By 1970, the realities of swing wing technology were also becoming better understood. France had abandoned the Mirage G. The F-111 had undergone a protracted development in the United States, and wing issues delayed arrival of Australia’s F-111Cs to 1973. Britain was forging ahead with the Panavia Tornado with Germany and Italy, but its first flight would not come until 1974. Introducing a subsonic advanced trainer was seen as a quick and cheap option; developing a swing-wing trainer was an expensive liability.

Amidst this, defence budgets continued to be constrained in funding. The British Defence Budget in 1970 was continuing its post-colonial contractions, whilst Australia’s own Defence interests were being formed by its role in Vietnam, and its Five-Power Defence Arrangement, which largely involved fielding forces in Malaysia. The thought of a supersonic jet trainer, given both countries’ experiences in the 1960s, was less of a necessity and more of a luxury.

The AA-107 was formally cancelled in May of 1970. Fortunately, the plywood mockup produced by CAC survived, and is hung today in the Ballarat Aviation Museum. Reading newspaper reports from the time of its cancellation, there appeared to be little mourning for the AA-107’s passing. Whilst the AA-107 has become another cited example for the slow death of Australia’s aircraft manufacturing industry, the reality is perhaps a little more complicated – it was a good-looking aircraft with a niche role, at best.

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Canberra Times reporting of the project cancellation, 20 May 1970 (Trove).

Had development of the AA-107 commenced sooner, and adopted a conventional fixed-wing (even one optimised for subsonic flight), its prospects would have been brighter. Such a design would have pre-dated the Hawk, which has subsequently gone on to a very successful export career. As it was, the AA-107 offered too much, and arrived too late.

Prospects

In a reality where the AA-107 made the leap from plywood mockup to a genuine article, its prospects for success might have still been marginal at best. First flight would have come around 1973-74, just as the RAAF was receiving the first of its initial 24 F-111Cs, with service entry around 1975-76. By the time AA-107s entered squadron service, the RAAF would have better understood the process of transitioning pilots from the MB326 to the F-111C, further questioning the need for such a trainer. It is difficult to argue the value too of a swing-wing jet trainer to the Mirage III workforce, especially given the availability of tandem seat trainers for that type.

The other intended role for the AA-107 – light attack aircraft – was even less critical for the RAAF. By the late 1970s, Australia was adapting its entire Mirage III fleet for ground attack duties as well as continuing their use as a fighter. Beyond the RAAF, the Royal Australian Navy in 1970 was operating ten A-4G Skyhawks, with ten more on order (I am curious to know if the AA-107 could have been fitted with a rugged undercarriage to permit carrier landings). With the inclusion of the F-111C, Australia had no real shortfall in its ground attack capability in the 1970s. The AA-107 would have offered cheaper operating costs than the Mirage III or F-111C, but less total capability. All histories considered, it’s hard to imagine the Australia ever needing more than 30 AA-107s – sufficient to equip two squadrons – for fighter training. And that’s being generous.

The Royal Air Force (RAF), meanwhile, equipped itself with the Panavia Tornado in a strike role from the mid-1970s, and as an interceptor in the 1980s. A small fleet of AA-107s could conceivably have provided lead-in training for these types. In reality, the Hawker Siddeley (later BAe) Hawk, replaced the Folland Gnat and Hawker Hunter, and served to train pilots on the Tornado, Lightning, Harrier, Jaguar, Phantom, and Typhoon.

Export prospects for the AA-107 would have largely been to those Air Forces operating a swing-wing aircraft. Fellow Tornado operators can be ruled out, as Germany was insistent on its jet training aircraft being twin-engine. Italy had its own training jet industry in Aermacchi – any adaption of the AA-107 would have needed to be licence-built.

BAC’s backing may have allowed two important export customers, however – India and Saudi Arabia. In the mid-1970s, India began equipping itself with the variable-geometry MiG-23 interceptor, followed by the ground attack MiG-27 in the 1980s. Flying the MiG-23 is a daunting prospect for a young pilot – it’s a big, powerful aircraft, and its training variant offered the back-seat pilot little in the way of visibility. A simpler swing-wing trainer like the AA-107 might have eased this transition. However, it’s questionable what advantages an Anglo/Australian-designed trainer would have offered pilots of a Soviet-designed fighter.

For the Saudis, BAC enjoyed success with exporting the Strikemaster and Lightning, and later the Hawk and Tornado under its BAE guise. If this success was applied to a BAC-marketed AA-107, its easy to consider the prospects of this trainer with Middle Eastern Air Forces, especially given the comparative export success of the Jaguar and Hawk within the region. Had the AA-107 cracked this market, the type could have continued flying well into the 1990s.

Post Script

Today, the AA-107 serves as another footnote in the history of failed Australian aviation programs. Casting aside criticisms of the relationship between the Australian Government and its aviation industry from the 1960s to the 1980s, it’s understandable why the AA-107 was technically, politically, and financially prohibited from succeeding. Never the less, a handful of factors have seen the aircraft gain a small following amongst aviation enthusiasts.

Key amongst these is the survival of the mock-up in Ballarat. Increased archiving of newspapers and periodicals from the time of its development have also preserved its memory. Online communities have also celebrated the aircraft’s memory.

One day, I wouldn’t mind kitbashing a few model aircraft in an attempt to produce a 1/72nd scale replica of an AA-107. All we’ve seen of this aircraft is in a bare metal finish with RAAF roundels; I wouldn’t mind speculating a green/grey camouflage scheme for the AA-107 with a No. 76 Squadron insignia on the tail, equipped with fuel tanks and a pair of AIM-9Bs, acting as an ‘aggressor’ jet during an East Coast Air Defence Exercise during the early 1980s. One can but dream

Special thanks to the ‘Friends of the AA107 swing wing attack aircraft’ Facebook Group, and Mike Forsberg, for assisting on this post.

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About eamonh

Air Mobility enthusiast and Star Wars fancier. All writings my own opinions and not those of my employers or associates.
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