Saturday, November 23, 2013

50 Shades Of Sukhoi

by Bill Sweetman

T-50-5, fifth development aircraft in Russia's stealth fighter program, has turned up at the Zhukovsky flight test center in a new two-tone blue-grey paint scheme. 

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It looks a bit like an early-World War 2 US Navy scheme, the bane of a young model-builder because Humbrol paints were not formulated for easy merging. I don't think it has anything to do with a carrier-based T-50, however. 

Clearly, someone in Russia has been doing some thinking about visual camouflage - which, unlike radar camouflage, has not often been the subject of intense, consistent scientific study. A few years ago, the Su-35 appeared with a jagged dazzle pattern that recalled at World War 1 warship. 

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Like those schemes, and like some of the camouflage schemes that U.S. Navy Cdr. C.J. "Heater" Heatley developed with the aid of artist Keith Ferris, the aim is to deceive rather than to conceal. The idea of dazzle on ships, for example, was to make it hard for a submarine commander to discern how fast his target was going, or even in which direction. 

The T-50-5 scheme seems to be influenced by two theories of vision. First, at long distances, visual perception is dominated by monochrome: the eye can see colors but is cued by light and dark. Second, contrast is important to perception, and a sharp-edged object is seen most easily. Consequently, a grayish color is the best camouflage whether the background is earth or sky, and deliberately blurring edges makes the aircraft less visible. 

One engineer who had worked with Heatley, by the way, told me that the camouflage was too effective: the risk of collision during training was unacceptable. Another interesting observation is that it took a long time for anyone to realize that the most visible color in daylight is black. That's why RAF trainers are painted black. What about the F-117? It was painted black because when it was introduced, a senior USAF commander did not believe that it could survive in daylight, and consequently ordered the jets to be painted black to make sure nobody tried it. 

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