I went to the Miramar Air Show, which lasted three days, and is just north of San Diego. There were a bunch of cool performers, and a lot of jets, with their pilots, so I learned a lot about the different types of planes and their drivers. The planes that were there were as follows, in decending kick ass order (as I see it):
1) The F-22 Raptor, (first picture) which everyone at the airshow agreed was the most kick ass. This is the newest (and most expensive) plane in the Air Force, and though the US Air Force wasn't hosting this air show, they brought along a couple of planes to demonstrate. This was mostly a Navy and Marines show.
2) The F-18 Super Hornet. (The Blue Angels fly F-18s) This is slightly more kick ass than the F-18 Hornet, and since they both were there, I will talk about them as basically the same plane. Now this number two spot is a tough one to place, because it was a close one between this and the number three spot. The F-18 can turn really tightly, which is an advantage in aerial combat, and that's really what these planes are for. They can also go slow to shoot at ground targets (which is all they are getting used for, since the places they go to fight don't have enemy planes) and that to land on aircraft carriers. Tight turning, at low speed makes kick ass (as I learned from pilots).
3) The F-16 Falcon. Now I loved this plane a lot growing up, and I had a little metal model that I would whoosh around making jet noises. I wish I still had it. But sadly, this slipped to number three, because it can't turn as sharply as the F-18. But it can turn faster. It can pull 9 Gs, rather than the F-18s 7.5, and it makes a turn at a higher speed. So how do you compare?
In Aerial combat, the two planes try to maximize their advantages (in their plane) and press the other plane into a form of flying that is to its detriment. If a Hornet were flying against a Falcon, the Falcon would try to keep up speed, in order to out-maneuver the Hornet, which can't turn as well at high speed. The Hornet would try to turn sharply, in order to force the Falcon into a slow speed match, and since the Hornet has more power and more lifting surface (wings and body) it can fly better at slow speed and win the chase around the circle, get behind the other one, and blamo! As an example of lifting body and low speed flight, look at the "Heritage Flight" picture, where a P-51 mustang (the propeller plane from World War 2) and a F-16 (in the middle) and an F-22 (on the bottom) are all flying together. You can see the Mustang is in pretty much level flight, and is pointed at the horizon. Since the Jets have to go much slower than they usually go, in order to stay in formation with it, you can see the problems with slow speed flight for the F-16. It has really small wings (in comparison to its size). The F-22 has GIANT wings, which enable it to float around in the air, and its nose is pointed a little up, but not nearly as much as the F-16's. Bigger wings allow a plane to do amazing things at low speed, which is typical for a dogfight.
When the F-16 landed, the pilot kept the nose up to make the plane do a "wheelie" for most of the length of the runway. When a plane flies with the nose up like this, its called a high "angle of Attack" or high Alpha flight. The angle of attack is the angle that the wind is coming from, and is something I am familiar with on a sailboat. If you fly straight and level, Alpha is about 0, but not quite, because you need to point up a little bit to keep the plane flying. When you pull up, or go into a turn, you increase Alpha, and sometimes you go so high as to "stall" the wing. As a wing comes near stall, the pressure on top is so low that the temperature of the air there drops, and water vapor may condense briefly, forming a funny little cloud that follows the wing. You can see this on commercial jets landing sometimes. Here, it was impressive. The F-22 has amazing high Alpha performance, so much that it could go to 90 degrees, and even 180 degrees, where the airplane is going backwards through the air. It also has really powerful engines. The F-16 (with the little trails over the wings) wasn't able to go at such high angles, so it relies on speed more than turning.
So why did they have a small wing for the F-16? I think it was that back when it was designed, they wanted something that could go fast and low, and since the air is turbulent at low elevations, going fast means that you need small wings. If you were surfing, say, on choppy seas, the larger the board you have, the more you get bounced around as you go faster. So you want a small board in order to reduce the area presented to the chop. Similarly in choppy seas on a catamaran vs a monohull (the cat usually has less area in the water).
It is called wing loading. If you have a heavy plane with a tiny wing, the pressure on the wing is high, so it is a highly loaded wing. High wing loading is good for high speed low level flight, because it means that you can slide through the turbulence, rather than get bounced by it. But its not good for low speed flight.
The F-22 was developed more recently, and flies at high elevations, where the air is smooth, so it can have a nice big wing. And a new generation fighter will have a giant wing, but using the technology that the 787 is supposed to have (a forward looking radar system that senses turbulence) it would be able to correct for the turbulence so you wouldn't even feel it. Like a shock absorber. Here is another shot of the F-22, and you can see how big the wing is. It also is showing the weapons bay, inside the airplane.
The reason that the F-22 is even more kick-ass has to do with its "Low Observability." Stealth was designed into the plane from the beginning, and you can see in this view that all the leading edges of the airplane all are in the same direction. This means that it presents only one angle of radar reflection from those surfaces, and that allows it to be harder to track.
There were a ton of static display airplanes, just lounging around on the runway with hordes of people crawling all over them. I talked to a few pilots and was really surprised to find how only one was shooing people off his plane, and trying to make them not touch it. They aren't fragile, but they are expensive. There were two cargo planes, the C-5 Galaxy, which is about 100,000,000 light years across, and can hold billions of stars. I've seen one of these take off from LAX. They are supposed to be able to do a short takeoff, and this one did. It went about 1000 ft and popped right up, going up at about 45 degrees. I don't know if it was empty or full, but the wings on it are giant. The nose and tail open up, so you can drive through it if you want, or walk. So I did. Its an old plane, with a older "single slot" flap system, rather than the triple slot found on most airliners today, but the pilots told me that they liked the plane a lot, and especially how much it can carry. I've seen a few cargo planes before, so I was trying to compare them. For example, the Boeing 747-400 Freighter is pretty darn big. It might be about the same length, I'm not sure, but it is not as big around. This one is something like 30 ft tall inside, and probably 35 ft wide. I believe the Large Cargo Freighter (which is a special 747) might be bigger around, but its close.
They also had a KC-135 on display, which is an old 707 body with big engines and a lot of fuel inside. It refuels different planes, and has been in service for 50 years. There is a "tanker contract" that boeing is trying to get that would replace all these tankers, and cost 40 billion dollars, so it is a big deal. The crew on these planes were very interested in a replacement, since they are old planes, but not optimistic about how soon it would be. This contract was first put up for bidding in 2001, I think, and its been a big fiasco since. There is so much money involved that everyone wants a piece, and that means a lot of politics. Also, the Air Force buys planes with Congress's money, so that complicates things. Anyways, its supposed to be figured out this fall, but I don't think it will be. Here's another shot of the F-22, but this one shows the cockpit. The green glass thing is a display that the pilots look into. It shows all the flight systems, so the pilot doesn't have to look at a bunch of different dials and things, which makes them better at flying. Also its a pretty green. Since it was a Marine base, they showed us how they drop from helicopters. I can imagine that would be fun to do, and it was really impressive as to how still the chopper was holding in the sky during the whole thing. I think it may have moved 6 inches in about 3 minutes of hovering.
Another performer, who wasn't military, was this guy flying an Oracle biplane. He could do anything, including hover the plane, fly it backwards, and go into crazy spins and rolls and then come back out of them. It was neat to see how he could use the tail to push the plane around at really low speed, sort of like thrust vectoring. He also did some LOW passes, under a ribbon that was 30 ft up, and then cut the ribbon with the plane.
Then there was a Jet Truck, which had three big jets and spat huge amounts of fire out the back, and made a lot of noise. They did a 1/4 mile run to see how fast it could go in that time. In about half a second, it seemed, he was doing 100 mph, then 150, 200, 250, 300, and I think he made it to about 350 by the end of the 1/4 mile run. Its something like 2 G. Since they are military (or the base was) they had to blow things up. I can't say I minded that much, but its amazing how the shock feels from a mile away. They did pretty small explosive charges, but you could feel your lungs kick when the shock wave passed, and there were nice big mushroom clouds of fire and smoke. They did a couple of big burns that were huge fireballs, so much that it would have been unbearable (from a mile away) had it lasted longer than about 2 seconds.
On some of the explosions, the mushroom cloud would go high into the sky and occasionally there was a smoke ring that remained for a while. The mushroom shape is because the hot explosion air rises in the middle, and as the edges cool, they drop around the outside of the ball. This can cause a doughnut shaped vortex, which is a smoke ring. When I worked in the Plasma Physics laboratory at UW, we would make this same smoke ring shape, but using magnetic fields, and use it to contain a ball of plasma, since it wants to roll in on itself. Then you can throw the plasma ball and it will stay together. Some people think that Ball Lightning is a similar shape.
There were also fireworks, and planes that shot out fireworks, which is neat, and a F-18 did a full afterburner flyby at night, so you could see the Mach Diamonds, which are formed when the supersonic exhaust goes past the engine outlet and forms a shock wave, which then bounces back and forth across the exhaust cone. I got a shot, but its not that good (since my camera isn't so good in low light) but if you look closely, you can see the diamonds.
The Blue Angels performed as well, and they of course were beautiful. They fly 18 inches from the wing tip to the cockpit cover, so I wonder if they ever bump. And if they do, does the glass get scratched?