A New Trainer for a New Generation
The early 1950s showed that dedicated jet powered trainers were required to properly and safely train pilots for jet aircraft. The performance gap between piston engine trainers and first generation jets was simply too great to prepare new pilots for the jets they’d be flying. First generation jets did not tend to have dedicated two seat variations for type specific training and so a new pilot’s first flight in a high performance jet fighter was solo in the early jet age. This resulted in many accidents and unacceptably high attrition in both aircraft and trainee pilots. Thus the idea of the dedicated jet trainer was born.
First generation jet trainers included the Fouga Magister from France, Aero L-29 Delfín from Czechoslovakia, Cessna T-37 from America, Aermacchi MB-326 from Italy, PZL TS-11 Iskra from Poland, BAC Jet Provost from Great Britain, Canadair CT-114 Tutor from Canada and Soko G-2 Galeb from Yugoslavia.
By the early/mid 1960s, the increased performance of second generation jet fighters had created the need for a second generation of jet trainers to match them. An additional demand on the second generation of jet trainers was an increased capability with regards to weapons. While a number of first generation training jets did possess some limited weapons capability and were even capable of light attack in some cases, many of the second generation trainers would be expected to have a weapons capability that would allow them to easily transition between the trainer and light attack roles.
The Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet, which first flew in 1973, is an example of this second generation of jet trainers.
The Franco-German Tango
The 1950s and 1960s marked the start of cooperation between France and Germany, particularly with regards to military equipment development, that continues to the present.
In the aviation context, prior to the Alpha Jet, the relationship had borne fruit in the form of the Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft and the Transall C-160 tactical transport aircraft.
The Alpha Jet story began in 1967 when France and West Germany entered talks about creating a jointly produced aircraft to fulfil both nations’ need for a new trainer to replace their Fouga Magister and Lockheed T-33 fleets. However, from the start, there were some differences of opinion between the nations regarding exactly what the aircraft would encompass in the scope of its roles.
France wanted a simple jet trainer that was easy to maintain and attractive to the export market while Germany wanted a light attack capability incorporated into the design as the Luftwaffe wanted to replace their fleet of Fiat G.91 aircraft as well as their Magister fleet. At the suggestion of Germany, it was ultimately agreed that the aircraft would be designed in two distinct versions to accomodate the desires of both nations.
There was also some disagreement about the engine for the aircraft early on. While both nations specified that the aircraft would be capable of high subsonic speeds, France wished to use the domestically designed SNECMA Turbomeca Larzac turbofan while Germany leaned towards the American made General Electric J-85 turbojet. Using the American engine was not acceptable to France as it would allow America to exercise some control over the exportability of the aircraft. With France refusing to finance the purchase of American engines, Germany agreed to use the Larzac in their version of the aircraft.
The design that would eventually become the Alpha Jet, was put forth by a team made up of the Breguet, Dassault and Dornier companies. Initially known as the TA501, the design was a mixture of existing Breguet and Dornier concepts and competed for the Franco-German trainer requirement against designs from another Franco-German team, SNIAS/MBB, and a Dutch/German proposal from VFW/Fokker. All three aircraft were designed around a pair of Larzac engines.
The TA501 was announced as the winning design in July of 1970.
Through 1971 and 1972, the foundations for building the new aircraft were laid and prototypes for both the French and German variations of the aircraft were constructed.
The French and German prototypes had their maiden flights within months of each other, with the French aircraft flying first in October of 1973 and the German version in January of 1974.
It is also worthy of note that Dassault merged with Breguet in 1971 and the Alpha Jet became the first aircraft to be built under the Dassault-Breguet name.
Taking on the Field
The Alpha Jet was one of the first second generation trainers of its class to take to the air and enter production and the first of western design.
While it was beaten into the air by the Aero L-39 Albatros from Czechoslovakia; it did have a distinct though narrow head start on its primary western rival, the Hawker Siddeley (later, BAE Systems) Hawk trainer which first flew in August of 1974.
Though it flew before the Hawk, the British aircraft entered service before the Alpha Jet. This should not come as a surprise as the Alpha Jet was a multinational project while the Hawk was fully British. The logistics of Alpha Jet production were more complex as the workshare was split between Dassault-Breguet in France (front and centre fuselage), Dornier in West Germany (rear fuselage, tail and wings) and SABCA in Belgium (nose and wing flaps).
While the Alpha Jet and Hawk have been frequently compared to each other over the years, they really are very evenly matched machines. When looking at the lists of user nations for the two types, it becomes quite clear that historical diplomatic ties to the aircrafts’ respective country of origin may have had more to do with which aircraft a nation chose than aircraft performance did. The Alpha Jet did well with nations in northern Africa that were former French colonies and kept strong ties to France while many nations who chose the Hawk had stronger historic ties to Great Britain.
The Alpha Jet had certain advantages over the hawk including a better thrust to weight ratio, higher cruising speed, higher operational ceiling and a stronger airframe.
The Alpha Jet’s high set wing also allowed it to carry some larger weapons and other underwing stores that there was inadequate ground clearance for under the low set wing of the Hawk. The Alpha Jet’s ability to carry the large French made Exocet anti-ship missile is one example of this.
The Hawk does have the advantages of longevity, Alpha Jet production ceased in 1991 while Hawk production continues to the present, and higher capacity for upgrading. However, the Alpha Jet has done well for itself on second hand markets in refurbished forms. Ex-Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A variants were particularly popular with second hand users after Germany retired and sold off their fleet through the 1990s.
Additionally, former military Alpha Jets have found favour with a number of civilian operators as either aerobatic display aircraft or in the Aggressor role in training air combat tactics to military fighter pilots.
Baring the Teeth
When it comes to sending the Alpha Jet into battle, Nigeria has most certainly been the aircraft’s biggest user.
Extensive use of Nigerian Alpha Jets was made during the First Liberian Civil War which lasted from 1989 to 1997.
Since 2013, Nigerian Alpha Jets have been used against insurgent actions of the Boko Haram terrorist group which is active in the northern regions of Nigeria as well as areas of neighboring countries.
During the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, Alpha Jets of the Qatari air force were used for coastal patrol to protect against potential Iraqi beach invasion.
Moroccan Alpha Jets were used in the counter insurgency role during the Western Sahara War which lasted from 1975 to 1991.
When fitted for attack roles, the Alpha Jet is able to carry a respectable range of guided or unguided weaponry under the wings as well as American made AIM-9 Sidewinder or French made R.550 Magic air-to-air missiles for self defense. It can also be fitted with 27mm Mauser or 30mm DEFA cannon pods on the fuselage centreline. A reconnaissance pod was another option for mounting on the centreline.
Some variants of the aircraft are fitted with laser targeting equipment thus allowing them to designate targets for other aircraft carrying laser guided bombs.
The Alpha Jet Family
Alpha Jet production lasted from 1973 to 1991 and a total 512 were made with more than half being exported.
Generally speaking, the aircraft family can be divided into three generations:
The first generation consisted quite simply of the original A and E models built to German and French standards respectively.
Owing to the German desire for light attack, the Alpha Jet A was a more complex aircraft than the E model from a standpoint of avionics.
Externally, the most immediately visible difference between the two models was the nose. The A model had a smooth pointed nose while the E model had a blunt nose with strakes on either side.
The first generation also included Belgium’s Alpha Jet B model, though it was a standard E model when it entered service.
Three models of the aircraft represent the second generation: MS1, MS2 and Alpha Jet 2
The MS1 was the designation given to the Egyptian export version of the E model trainer. These aircraft were assembled in Egypt from kits supplied by Dassault-Breguet.
The MS2 was an attack optimised version based on the MS1. It included many improvements to avionics as well as more powerful engines.
The Alpha Jet 2 was a ground attack optimised version of the E model that incorporated aspects of the MS2.
This generation never really existed beyond paper concepts. It included the Alpha Jet ATS and Lancier variants.
The ATS (Advanced Trainer System) was to be a fully modernised version with full glass cockpits and other modern avionics.
Lancier was to be the attack optimised variation and was to have included all the upgrades of the ATS version plus an attack radar.
Alpha Jet B+
In 2000, Belgium initiated an upgrade program for their Alpha Jet B fleet.
This upgrade included modern flight controls and heads up display along with a modernised navigation system among other improvements.
In the late 2000s, France had a number of their E models upgraded to the B+ standard.
The Alpha Jet Today
The Alpha Jet has flown in the air forces of 12 countries and has found its way onto civilian registers in Austria, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the USA.
It has served as the mount for military demonstration teams from Egypt, France and Portugal.
In civilian service, it is used for aerobatics displays, but is also highly valued as a platform for research and test flights as well as an aggressor aircraft for modern military fighter pilots to fly against in air combat training.
As of 2022, the Alpha Jet continues to serve most of the military operators who selected it. However, some users are in the process of replacing their Alpha Jets or retiring them without replacement.
Whether in civil or military hands, it looks like the Alpha Jet will still be taking to the air for a while yet. How many chances are left for the public to see the type perfom is another matter entirely.
This link will take you to a brief history of the Alpha Jet on Dassault Aviation’s web site.
This link will take you to the Alpha Jet page of the Red Bull fleet.
This link will take you to a photo essay of the Alpha Jet based demonstration team of the Portuguese air force. Portugal retired the last of their Alpha Jets in 2018.