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Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Perils of Pride

Back in the 1960's, the world was moving very fast. But in the world of aircraft & airliner design, they wanted to move even faster. Obscenely fast; & we're not just talking mildly profane, we're talking really offensive.

The collaborative efforts of Britain & France, through their state-owned aerospace companies BAC & SUD /Aerospatiale respectively, were the first to have a plane on the drawing board, capable of trans-Atlantic crossings at twice the speed of sound (mach 2). Russia's cold war spies were hard at work & soon the Soviets had their equivalent, the Tu-144, taking shape.
The Russians are here too. The Tu-144
The future is here. Enter, The Concord

But in the United States, they had a couple of problems. Firstly, they didn't have state-owned aircraft companies that the Government could pump millions of dollars into. The closest they had to that was NASA, & it was busy trying to figure out how to get to the moon. Secondly, most of the major aircraft manufacturers were busy being the latter half of the Military-Industrial Complex, building fighter jets, cargo planes & tankers for the USAF, Navy & Marines, to be born into battle in the skies over Vietnam. Nothing helps the demand for warplanes more than a war.

But the biggest problem America had was its' national pride. The Brits, the French, &, worst of all, the Russians, all had something that they didn't. Just like with radar & the jet engine, America was once again left behind & late to the party.

But Kennedy was a man of vision & big ambitions, & despite wars & rumours of wars, seemingly stimulated the national pride like no other at the time. He seemed to inspire the attitude that "anything they can do, we can do better". So whilst having challenged NASA to find a way to the moon, he threw out the challenge to aviation manufacturers to build America's own Supersonic Transport (SST) airliner. But forget mach 2; he told them he wanted mach 3.

Airline designers took the baton & got to work. Their plane would be bigger & better than anything the rest of the world could produce. It sounded like something that later inspired the unforgettable opening voice-over to "The Six Million Dollar Man" TV show..."we have the technology...we have the capability...better...faster..."

As ambition gave way to endorphin overload, so the concept of supersonic passenger travel gave way to something ever grander; a hypersonic transport (HST). Forget mach 3, lets do mach 5!

Credit: The Aerospace Project Review Blog
But as drawings led to thoughts of costs & materials, a very real problem emerged. Early flight testing of the Concorde revealed that the airframe would stretch by up to 10 inches during supersonic flight, as heat from friction between the air & the aircraft softened the aluminium. They calculated that at mach 3, it would literally melt it. At the time, the only thing they knew that could withstand mach 3 was titanium, as used in part on the mach 3 SR-71 "Blackbird", & later, the Mig-25 "Foxbat".

The problem with titanium, not to mention its' cost, was that it is very heavy. To build engines powerful enough to push a titanium airliner with 200 passengers through the skies at mach 3 or more, you would need fuel tanks the size of the entire aircraft itself. And then you have the problem that the weight of all that fuel only makes the aircraft even heavier, virtually guaranteeing a self-perpetuating, endless cycle of practical hopelessness. And then finally you would have to convince those 200 passengers to ride in what would essentially be supersonic bomb.

Pretty soon they realised it just wasn't going to happen. And if they couldn't do faster, they would have to settle for bigger. The Boeing 747, originally designed as a cargo plane for the USAF in competition with the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy (the latter winning), would soon become the dominant long-haul commercial airliner for the next 25 years.

America's experiment with SST & HST was always fanciful, but at least they saw, as Britain & France soon found out, that it was never going to be financially viable either. The Anglo-French Concorde is an eternal symbol of aviation genius & beauty, but was also a symbol of their national pride as well, & the pride of those who flew on it.

Whether you judge national pride to be a good thing or a bad thing is up to you. It does seem to give birth to endless invention & technological advance. But at what cost?

1 comment:

  1. National Pride is good. Patriotism is good. Nationalism is bad.
    Great article Ron. I think part of the issue was also that since the US was busy with building other types of aircraft, the best of their kind in the world, by the time we entered this race it was easier to see the reasons not to do it.