Twenty Years Ago Today: First Flight of the Typhoon

The Eurofighter Typhoon: so sophisticated and European that it's wearing a moustache. You may have heard that the RAF have picked up some cool new fighter aircraft over the last decade or so. And surprisingly, we actually build some of them ourselves! Well, okay, we build them in concert with European partners, because this instils European amity or something. Although mainly it seems to result in political squabbling, like the time Helmut Kohl vowed to cancel the project and then discovered he couldn't because his predecessor had built all kinds of horrible penalties into the contract.

The aircraft in question is the Eurofighter, which is officially known as the Typhoon now that it's in active service - although it was in development for so long that everyone still thinks of it as the Eurofighter. For a while, they were going to call it the Spitfire II, but the Luftwaffe objected to operating an aircraft with the same name as one they were fighting against in world war two. So instead it was named after a world war two ground attack aircraft, because apparently the German Army don't care about this quite as much as the German Air Force.

And twenty years ago today, it flew for the first time.

It was already over budget by this point in 1994. Of course it was. It was a massively complicated technical project being built by engineering geniuses and overseen by highly competent managers who, unfortunately, answer to politicians. This kind of cost overrun is endemic to such programmes, and legendarily so in the United States, where politicians from the various states scream loudly if the money and jobs provided aren't spent in their districts, leading to such interesting results as the US Army saying they don't need any more tanks but Congress forcing them to take them anyway because otherwise jobs would be lost.


Now imagine this kind of insanity happening between different countries that speak different languages and have different governments. That's why there are four production lines in four nations, all making little bits of the planes. The left and right wings aren't even made in the same place. It's small wonder that the budget ballooned from £7bn in 1988 to £17bn in 1997, and then to... well, actually, the UK government stopped releasing official cost estimates in 2003, so it's hard to say. By 2011 there was a guess of £37bn by the National Audit Office, while German authorities said that the price was in a state of perpetual increase. No wonder the French left the project and made their own fighter instead.

But still, the Typhoon is flying. Well, most of them are. The RAF contingent were grounded in 2010 due to a lack of spare parts, and were only brought back into service by cannibalising some of them. Nevertheless, they flew their first combat operations in 2011, despite having a lack of pilots as well as spare parts, and did actually manage to drop some bombs on Libya very successfully - although they had to rely on older Tornado ground attack aircraft to do the targeting, because the Typhoon pilots hadn't been trained how to do it yet.

The Tornado has now been retired, leaving the Typhoon as the only air defence fighter used by the RAF. It won't be deployed by the Royal Navy on their new aircraft carriers (which are also late, and also over budget) because the government decided in the late 90's that they should rely on the American F-35 instead, what with the Eurofighter being a disaster in the making. Because surely the yanks can organise a pissup in a brewery design an aircraft in an aircraft factory, right? Well, not so much. The F-35 is currently about as late and over budget as the carriers it's supposed to fly from. So they'll probably go together just fine.

The RAF version can also be deployed in 'handlebar' mode

Despite all this ham-handedness, it is, by all accounts, a very nice aircraft. It's unlikely to be tested in air to air combat any time soon (unless Vladimir Putin really loses his marbles), but it's manoeuvrable, fast, packs a punch and can go toe to toe with anything else out there (or so the simulations and wargames say). It's just the human element that lets it down: we always seem to make a mess of procuring these things when there's so much money at stake and we don't have an actual war to fight.

But never mind. The next generation of fighters will be free of human taint. They'll be pilotless drones, designed by computers, built by robots, and directed to their targets by Skynet. Humanity will probably be doomed, but at least our extinction will be brought about on time and under budget.

Here's a nice little video from the Science Museum that shows what it's like in the cockpit of a Typhoon: