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By Thomas Wheeler

Airplanes of a wide and varied sort have been part of the G.I. Joe action figure line virtually since its inception. Since the SkyStriker XP-14F Combat Jet was first introduced in 1983, G.I. Joe, Cobra, and even the Iron Grenadiers have had their own distinctive planes, many of them based on real-life military aircraft to one degree or another. The SkyStriker was based on an F-14. The Cobra Rattler was based, with modifications, on an A-10 Thunderbolt. And the original Cobra Night Raven took most of its cues from the SR-71 Blackbird.

The presence of aircraft within the line continued through the newsculpt era, of course, and now continues in the movie-based line. Some of the aircraft available are entirely new vehicles, such as the Cobra Gunship. Others are recolors of previously released airplanes, but that doesn't make them any less impressive if they were cool to begin with.

The Cobra CRIMSON HYDRA -- interesting name, especially in light of Hasbro having the Marvel Comics license these days and given the name of a certain terrorist organization within the Marvel Universe -- is one of the vehicles that has seen the light of day before. It was originally released in 2003 as the SKY SWEEPER, a new G.I. Joe airplane at the time.

Just to throw in a little more confusion, there's a new Sky Sweeper out there that's part of the movie line. It's designated for the G.I. Joe team, and is a modified Cobra Firebat.

The original Sky Sweeper was one of those planes that took most of its cues from an existing, real-life airplane. Colored in black, it was based on a particularly popular stealth plane whose existence at the time had been declassified not that many years prior. It was based on an F-117 Nighthawk.

I suppose this is one of my favorite real-world military aircraft, in part because it's such a wild design. I think if someone had tried to come up with a toy of this before the existence of the real plane had become common knowledge.

Let's have a little educational fun and look into the background of the F-117A, with a little help from WikiPedia.

The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is a stealth ground attack aircraft formerly operated by the United States Air Force. The F-117A's first flight was in 1981, and it achieved initial operating capability status in October 1983. The F-117A was "acknowledged" and revealed to the world in November 1988.

A product of the Skunk Works and a development of the Have Blue technology demonstrator, it became the first operational aircraft initially designed around stealth technology. The F-117A was widely publicized during the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

The Air Force retired the F-117 on 22 April 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the more effective F-22 Raptor and the upcoming F-35 Lightning II.

The F-117 was a black project, an ultra-secret program for much of its life, until the late 1980s. The project began in 1975 with a model called the "Hopeless Diamond" (a wordplay on the Hope Diamond due to its appearance). In 1977 Lockheed produced two 60% scale models under the Have Blue contract. The Have Blue program was a stealth technology demonstrator that lasted from 1976 to 1979. The success of Have Blue led the Air Force to create the Senior Trend program which developed the F-117.

The decision to produce the F-117A was made on 1 November 1978, and a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, popularly known as the Skunk Works, in Burbank, California. The program was led by Ben Rich. Rich called on Bill Schroeder, a Lockheed mathematician, and Denys Overholser, a computer scientist, to exploit Ufimtsev's work. They designed a computer program called Echo, which made it possible to design an airplane with flat panels, called facets, which were arranged so as to scatter over 99% of a radar's signal energy "painting" the airplane.

The F-117 first flew in June 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision. The first production F-117A was delivered in 1982, operational capability was achieved in October 1983. The Air Force denied the existence of the aircraft until 1988, when a grainy photograph was released to the public. In April 1990 two were flown into Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, arriving during daylight and visible to a crowd of tens of thousands. Five Full Scale Development (FSD) aircraft built and were designated "YF-117A". A total of 59 production F-117s were delivered through July 1990

The F-117 is shaped to deflect radar signals and is about the size of an F-15 Eagle. The single-seat Nighthawk is powered by two non-afterburning General Electric F404 turbofan engines, and has quadruple-redundant fly-by-wire flight controls. It is air refuelable. To lower development costs, the avionics, fly-by-wire systems, and other parts are derived from the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18 Hornet and F-15E Strike Eagle.

Among the penalties for stealth are lower engine power thrust, due to losses in the inlet and outlet, a very low wing aspect ratio, and a high sweep angle (50°) needed to deflect incoming radar waves to the sides. With these design considerations and no afterburner, the F-117 is limited to subsonic speeds.

The F-117A is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a digital avionics suite. It carries no radar, which lowers emissions and cross-section. It navigates primarily by GPS and high-accuracy inertial navigation. Missions are coordinated by an automated planning system that can automatically perform all aspects of an attack mission, including weapons release. Targets are acquired by a thermal imaging infrared system, slaved to a laser that finds the range and designates targets for laser-guided bombs.

The F-117A's split internal bay can carry 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) of ordnance. Typical weapons are a pair of GBU-10, GBU-12, or GBU-27 laser-guided bombs, two BLU-109 penetration bombs, or two Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), a GPS/INS guided stand-off bomb.

The G.I. Joe Sky Sweeper which was based on the F-117A was, of course, black. The Cobra Crimson Hydra, as one might expect from its name, is a crimson red in color. Apart from this, however, how well does it compare to an F117-A?

Pretty well, in my opinion. If you call up the WikiPedia article, there are several photographs as well as schematic diagrams. The basic shape of the Crimson Hydra is very close to an F-117A. Granted also, the shape of the plane is so distinctive that it could hardly be mistaken for anything else. Arguably if Hasbro wanted to come up with a high-tech stealth plane for either G.I. Joe or Cobra, they could have just made something up that even used the angular, faceted characteristics of the F-117A, and still had it look extremely different. But it doesn't. Both the original Sky Sweeper and the Crimson Hydra, color notwithstanding on the latter, look very much like the F-117A.

There are, of course, some differences. The Crimson Hydra is a stockier-looking plane, due largely to the fact that its side wings are smaller and narrower than an F-117A. The main body structure, including the V-shaped tail, is astonishingly similar, especially from the front.

From the side, it looks a little stockier as well, and this time, one can't really blame the wings. However, in fairness, none of the planes that have been produced within the G.I. Joe line that have been based on real-life military jets have been precisely to scale -- not even the SkyStriker. If memory serves, the SkyStriker is somewhere between 60%-70% full size, with a somewhat exaggerated cockpit to accommodate the figure.

I think the same could fairly be said about the Crimson Hydra. It's probably somewhere in some sort of scale range, with a larger-scale cockpit to accommodate the pilot.

The Crimson Hydra has some features, though, that no F-117A ever had. For one thing, the side wings, narrow and smaller than they would be if it were based on an actual F-117A, also retract. Part of me wonders how much this was done to give the toy an unusual special feature -- since it doesn't seem like an especially practical one for a plane to have -- and how much this was done so the vehicle would fit within a designated box size.

This may have been the case with the original Sky Sweeper. If memory serves, it was a fairly tight fit in a box size that was being used largely at the time for mid-sized tanks. The feature certainly helped the Crimson Hydra fit into the median vehicle size box range which has also been known for such mid-sized vehicles as the Cobra Steel Crusher and the Dragonhawk XH1 Copter. Honestly, I think that box size was designed with the Steel Crusher, the most recognizable of the movie-specific vehicles, in mind. It's an idea fit for that, whereas most of the other vehicles have had to be assembled more extensively once they're out of their packages, or had some way of accommodating the box size -- like the Crimson Hydra's retracting wings.

The other interesting special feature of the Crimson Hydra, which you won't find on any F-117A, is the small scout plane that drops out from underneath the center of the vehicle.

This thing isn't much more than a cockpit with very small extending wings and a jet engine in the back, and in the real world I doubt very much you could get something like this off the ground, and dropping it from a plane in flight would most likely result in a large hole in the ground. But, throw in some "willing suspension of disbelief", and it's an interesting little addition to the overall vehicle.

Managing to be both oval and angular in shape, the scout plane is mostly black, with thick crimson stripes down the sides, a transparent raising canopy, and a reclining cockpit seat that looks surprisingly comfortable for such otherwise cramped spaces. There's a control console present, as well. Good luck getting the label with all the printed console details onto it.

Another interesting feature of the main Crimson Hydra plane is that you can slide the V-shaped tail back a little bit, and open up the center part of the plane along these two massive doors. Think of what a Space Shuttle does and you've about got it. But within isn't a cargo bay. These are described as "side stabilizers" -- although frankly I would think that opening these hatches in flight would tear the plane apart -- which conceal a couple of spring-loaded rocket launchers! Plausibility factors aside, it's a cool feature visually and functionally, with excellent overall detail.

Additionally, the Crimson Hydra has retractable and lowering landing gear, with actual rolling wheels. The plane is about a foot in length, with a wingspan of just under a foot with the wings at full extension. It's just shy of five inches in height with the wheels down. It's far from the largest plane in either the G.I. Joe or Cobra flight pool, but given the real-life plane it's based on, in my opinion, it's one of the most impressive.

One feature the Crimson Hydra doesn't have that the Sky Sweeper did is sound effects capability. The original Sky Sweeper was produced during the "Sound Attack" run of the newsculpt G.I. Joe line. There are sockets on the side of the plane into which weaponry could be plugged to create different sound effects. Fortunately, these do not detract from the look of the Crimson Hydra, as they're on the sides of the jet intakes. There are two black buttons on the back of the plane, on the top, which are non-functional, and wherever the battery case and speaker holes might have been, they're gone now. Like the side sockets, the two buttons on the back do not detract from the look of the plane, and the loss of the sound effects is, in my opinion, no big loss. If you want sound effects -- get the Night Raven.

The Crimson Hydra comes with a generous supply of labels, most of which fit well into their intended places, although the ones that go into the cockpit are a bit of a challenge, at least for adult-sized hands. In such cases as this I recommend placing the label on the tip of a toothpick or X-Acto Knife and gently moving it into position. Along with a number of Cobra emblems, the plane is in keeping with the movie by providing a number of labels that also read "M.A.R.S. Industries". Granted this was also the name of Destro's munitions company even in the comic book and pre-movie toy line, it just didn't have as much emphasis.

The Crimson Hydra comes with a pilot figure, named AERO-VIPER. That's a name with some established history in the world of G.I. Joe. The original Aero-Viper was released in 1990, with one of Cobra's stranger planes, not to mention one of their larger planes, called the Condor Z25. The Condor was one of those planes that was clearly made up by Hasbro. A fairly narrow plane with a wide, forward-swept wingspan, it had the distinctive capability of splitting into two separate aircraft, each of which could be then flown independently. It was bizarre, but cool in its own way.

The Aero-Viper -- and I think some G.I. Joe fans were hoping for an AIR-Viper which, although previously mentioned, hadn't occurred as a figure yet, and wouldn't for a great many years -- was an interesting figure. He wore a predominantly green flight suit with a grey vest, black trunks and boots, grey gloves, and a metallic gold helmet. The flight suit was well-padded, and the helmet managed to look both futuristic and effective at the same time.

The only odd thing about the Aero-Viper was the headsculpt. The helmet was removable, and the head underneath had a bandana wrapped around the top of its head, coming down distinctly further than the average bandana, with a slit cut across the front for eyes. It almost looked ninja-ish.

But what was really odd was that the figure had a mustache and goatee. Since this was a trooper figure, did this mean that ALL Aero-Vipers were required to have facial hair? It was sort of like the Rock-Viper, also a 1990 release, who had a mustache. While both figures were cool and had a cool look, I do tend to question whether putting that sort of detail on a trooper figure was entirely appropriate.

The Aero-Viper headsculpt would go on, years later, to a very different second use, as the headsculpt for the Dreadheads in the 2004 Official G.I. Joe Collectors' Convention Set. Honestly, it worked better there.

But, with helmet in place, the original Aero-Viper was a cool figure, and the new Aero-Viper manages to take several cues from the original. It is, of course, a 25th-style figure.

The flight suit is mostly black this time around, not green. However, there is some gold trim, mostly on the arms and around the boots, and the overall uniform appears to be well padded and decently protective. The Aero-Viper is wearing a grey vest that is very reminiscent of the original Aero-Viper's, and does a nice job of concealing the mid-torso articulation point. There is a Cobra emblem on the left upper arm.

The helmet is clearly that of an Aero-Viper. It looks virtually the same, except that the visor is transparent, and the area around the lower face has been painted black. The rest of the helmet is the same metallic gold as the original.

The helmet is, of course, removable. You can see eyes through the visor even when it's in place. With the helmet off, the Aero-Viper is wearing a slightly ridged ski-mask over his face. This, in my opinion, is preferable to the bandanna, since it maintains the anonymity of a Cobra trooper figure, and it's anybody's guess if he has a mustache or goatee under the ski mask...

The file cards for the movie-based figures do not go into the same level of detail as previous incarnations of G.I. Joe, but there is some information here. The card for the Aero-Viper reads: Aero-Vipers are combat and reconnaissance pilots for the Cobra organization. They are trained in stealth and evasion tactics to conduct clandestine operations for the secretive research company. These elite pilots fly the company's most advanced stealth jet.

There is also text on the back of the package concerning the Crimson Hydra itself. It reads: The Crimson Hydra jet is designed for stealth operations that must leave no trace or signature. This advanced aircraft from M.A.R.S. Industries has advanced technology that suppresses all known detection systems and is equipped with unmanned flight programmability. The release pod deploys from the jet's underbelly for below-radar infiltration or escape.

So what's my final word here? This is a cool plane. It was cool when it was released as the original Sky Sweeper, and it's a cool plane now as the Crimson Hydra. It's an impressive plane with some interesting capabilities and a cool look to it that is based on one of the cooler real-life military jets that's been out there. This plane will be a welcome addition to any G.I. Joe collection.

As such, the COBRA CRIMSON HYDRA from G.I. JOE - THE RISE OF COBRA definitely has my highest recommendation!