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The Plane That Flew Too Soon

Article #312 • Written by Matt Castle

Early one Sunday morning in September 1949, throngs of people started to gather around the runway of the Bristol Aeroplane Company factory in the west of England. Curious Bristolians occupied every available vantage point, while workers and their families crowded into special enclosures alongside the airfield. The ten thousand or so bystanders were joined by two hundred and fifty reporters from all corners of the globe, all present in anticipation of an historic event. The message had gone out: “It’s going to be today!”

A huge contraption lay poised on the threshold of the runway: a flying machine far larger than any that the ordinary onlooker would have seen before. With elegant curves and a smooth stressed-metal skin, she looked impressive enough, but there may have been doubts among the spectators regarding the aircraft’s ability to leave the ground. Many had watched the giant plane incessantly track back and forth along the runway over the last two days, with no sign of a take-off. But now the taxi-trials were complete.

At ten o’clock their patience was finally rewarded. To the throaty roar of eight powerful Centaurus piston engines, and the delight of the crowd, the Bristol Brabazon– the largest and most advanced airliner of its day– sped down the runway and took to the air for the very first time. As the graceful behemoth slipped the surly bonds of the Earth, it’s said that the captain, test pilot Bill Pegg, uttered the words: “Good God- it works!” But for all of the splendor surrounding its maiden voyage, the massive aircraft was soon relegated to the scrap heap of aviation history.

Back on the ground, it’s likely that a group of increasingly disgruntled British government accountants watched the flight with a somewhat blunted sense of euphoria– for as well as being vast, the aircraft was proving vastly expensive, and the joyous occasion of its first flight was at least two years overdue. Yet when the Brabazon took to the air, the hopes and expectations of an exhausted and war-shattered Britain were lifted with it.

Absurdly ambitious in concept and execution, the Bristol Brabazon was designed to carry more people faster, further, higher and in greater comfort than any plane that had flown before. Its most obvious feature was its size-- at the time of its first flight it was the largest land-based aircraft in the world, dwarfing all other airliners. Comparisons with typical transport aircraft of the time are revealing: the Brabazon had well over twice the wingspan, nearly three times the length, and eight times the weight of the well-known Douglas DC-3. The "Brab" also flew higher and faster, with an unparalleled range and carrying capacity. While newer variants of pre-existing planes (such as the Lockheed Constellation) had already brought advances such as pressurized cabins to the airlines, the Brabazon was the first passenger aircraft purpose-built to incorporate such features. Its unique combination of complexity, performance, high technology and unheard-of size was to remain unrivalled for nearly two decades.

The Bristol Brabazon design, like most large-scale projects of its era, was born out of the Second World War. In 1942 the British and American governments decided to divide responsibility for Allied aircraft production; The Americans would focus on building air transports, while the British would concentrate on delivering large numbers of combat aircraft. Even as the conflict raged in Europe, it soon became clear that this plan would leave Britain at a post-war technological disadvantage, as highlighted by a 1943 British Air Ministry committee chaired by Lord Brabazon of Tara. The committee's farsighted report urged the development of a large transatlantic airliner to secure the needs of postwar British commerce and industry. In response, the Bristol Aircraft Company reworked a previously abandoned design for a long-range heavy bomber to produce the imposing Brabazon concept. The company benefited from this apparent head-start by eventually receiving £12,000,000 of government money for the project. Much was riding on the endeavour: the future of the company, the livelihoods of the factory workers and suppliers in Bristol, Britain’s reputation as a technological leader in aeronautical design, and ultimately– many believed– the renaissance of the nation’s civil aircraft manufacturing industry.

An aircraft as ambitious as the Brabazon demanded novel construction techniques and a flurry of technical advances. Such a large airplane risked a serious weight problem, so engineers went to unprecedented lengths to strip excess metal from the design without sacrificing its structural strength. This foreshadowed the fine tolerances and optimal manufacturing processes standard in the aircraft construction industry today. A new hangar had to be built; with its 230ft wingspan-- greater than that of any modern airliner apart from Airbus’ new "superjumbo" A380-- existing facilities at the factory were hopelessly deficient. The eight coupled contra-rotating propellers were driven by eight paired engines, buried in the wing close to the fuselage to improve drag and allow space for the outboard fuel tanks.

Like many later aircraft, the Brabazon featured technologies such as electric engine controls, high-pressure hydraulics to operate the flying surfaces, and cabin pressurization. The aircraft was initially designed to accommodate 80 passengers with sleeping berth accommodation, or 150 people for daytime flights, in considerably more luxury than most modern aircraft can offer. Proposed cabin designs included provision for lounges, cocktail bars and cinemas. Although the prototype had old-fashioned piston engines, the turboprops on the anticipated production version could maintain a top speed of 330 miles per hour. This would allow a transatlantic flight time of about twelve hours, which was not unreasonable compared to its contemporaries.

As it turns out, test pilot Bill Pegg’s surprise during the maiden flight was misplaced. The Brabazon did indeed work: its performance comfortably matched specifications, and although some strengthening was deemed necessary around the propellor mountings, the design was free of serious problems. Test pilots delighted in the aircraft’s pleasant flying characteristics while test passengers enthused about the smooth ride and spacious interior. The experience was a far cry from the buttock-numbing bumpiness of the older generation of piston-engined airliners. It seemed certain that the Bristol Aircraft Company had a hit on its hands. But despite an impressive run of displays on the international airshow circuit, no airlines were interested in buying the design. The second prototype never made it off the production line, and in 1953 the world’s first and only Bristol Brabazon-- the high-flying luxury liner of the future-- was unceremoniously scrapped.

Big aircraft: the Brabazon, Spruce Goose and Boeing 747
Big aircraft: the Brabazon, Spruce Goose and Boeing 747

In terms of size, expense and commercial success, the aircraft invites comparison to another giant post-war aeronautical creation: Howard Hughes’ magnificently misconceived monster, the H-4 Hercules or ‘Spruce Goose’. But whereas the Hercules flying-wooden-boat was a collection of dead-end technologies that seemed destined for failure, the Brabazon embodied anything but backwardness. A more appropriate comparison could be made with the comparably-sized, ultra-successful Boeing 747. It shared the Brabazon's lightweight all-metal construction, pressurized cabin, and hydraulic flight controls, yet this archetypal modern ‘jumbo jet’ was not to fly for another twenty years.

Today, most commentators trace the Brabazon’s failure to the British aircraft industry’s poor understanding of post-war market conditions. Despite its cutting-edge technology, the Brabazon was outfitted in the style of a luxurious 1930s ocean liner with pre-war air passengers in mind: wealthy industrialists, super-rich tourists, or civil servants on urgent government business demanding high levels of comfort. Although it was approximately the same size and weight as the modern 747, the Brabazon was designed to carry only 100-odd passengers compared to the Boeing’s 300-plus capacity. All this combined to make the type profoundly uneconomical. At the same time, smaller but faster turbojet-powered airliners were in development, and it was felt that passengers would readily sacrifice the extra space and comfort of the Brabazon for a quicker journey.

With better marketing and an increased passenger capacity the Bristol Brabazon might have been successful. Yet the concept of mass air travel was alien to populations on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1940s. One or two British airlines flirted with the aircraft, but ultimately deemed her too costly and high-maintenance for their purposes. Europe was too impoverished, while America was busy developing her own advanced airliners such as the Boeing 707. Aircraft procurement tended to take place along national lines, and it was crucial that the Brabazon gained orders from a British airline if it was to succeed. When this failed to happen, its fate was sealed.

It seems likely that the Brabazon’s futuristic features and large size were an integral part of its undoing. When the 747 took to the skies at the end of the swinging sixties, the travelling public were earning more and aspiring to join the jet-set– in short, the world was waiting for such an aircraft. The immense aircraft offered technologies and amenities which were simply not in demand. The world was not yet ready.

Passengers enjoying the high life in the Brabazon's spacious cabin
Passengers enjoying the high life in the Brabazon's spacious cabin

Today, of course, many more people appreciate the comfort and convenience of modern air travel, and passenger numbers are increasing year by year. New aircraft such as the A380 are even beginning to reintroduce luxuries such as sleeping berths, cocktail bars, and casinos. Yet few from these ever-growing throngs of flyers are even aware of the plane that pioneered many of the technologies they enjoy and depend upon– the plane that demonstrated what was possible.

Complex yet chic, gargantuan yet graceful, the Bristol Brabazon was a spectacular and larger-than-life girl of the sixties, sadly fated to fly out her days in the austere setting of postwar Britain– at least a decade ahead of her time.

Article written by Matt Castle, published on 01 February 2008. Matt is a writer and contributing editor for Damn Interesting, and not quite an anagram of 'Clam Taste'.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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83 Comments
Timmmm
Posted 01 February 2008 at 05:53 pm

Shame.


rackrussel
Posted 01 February 2008 at 06:01 pm

how typically british even with cutting edge technologies it still has 1930's mindset


polhu2
Posted 01 February 2008 at 06:02 pm

Casinos?


quetzalcoatl035
Posted 01 February 2008 at 06:16 pm

4th!!


conman32
Posted 01 February 2008 at 07:42 pm

Did airports around the world have enough runway space to support such a behemoth at the time???


oldmancoyote
Posted 01 February 2008 at 08:18 pm

Fairly typical of the era: Technology and engineering for a product that had no demand.
I would imagine the cost of a flight would have been too extravagant for all but a few.


Stead311
Posted 01 February 2008 at 08:31 pm

oldmancoyote said: "Fairly typical of the era: Technology and engineering for a product that had no demand."

I totally agree. Money thrown away. It seems that happens a lot more nowadays but with less to show for it. Trillions being spent and I never feel it is justified. Maybe I am oblivious to it or maybe my generalizations of the past are exactly that. Either way, nothing I can do about it. Good Job Matt! You are becoming on of my favorites aside from this bellows character.


jjwoods
Posted 01 February 2008 at 08:36 pm

I wander where it is now.


Web
Posted 01 February 2008 at 09:44 pm

Its most obvious feature was its size– at the time of its first flight it was the largest land-based aircraft the world, dwarfing all other airliners.

Should say "largest land-based aircraft (in) the world...

Cheers on the great article.


Lisette
Posted 01 February 2008 at 10:55 pm

Passenger pic - guy looks like Dracula!!!


DribblePoop
Posted 02 February 2008 at 12:36 am

Total waste of money for that time


Illustrator
Posted 02 February 2008 at 01:12 am

Should I photoshop Virgin's Sir Richard Branson on some
of these pictures?


another viewpoint
Posted 02 February 2008 at 06:20 am

...sometimes you have to "push the envelope" to see what eventually falls out. And sometimes the by-products of such endeavors are worth more than the whole. As an example; going to the moon. We didn't really have to go there, but NASA showed that it could be done. A whole lot of products, companies and industries were the result of investments made in the moon race. Was it worth it? One man's garbage is another man's treasure.


Bolens
Posted 02 February 2008 at 07:18 am

Lisette said: "Passenger pic - guy looks like Dracula!!!"

LOL...
Perhaps only those with the ability to compile money over hundreds of years could purchase plane tickets.

I love reading stories about problem aircraft. Thank you and great job, Mr. Castle.


solarwind
Posted 02 February 2008 at 08:29 am

Sort of reminds me of the ship the SS Great Eastern built by the engineer Brunel...it too was greatly ahead of its time.


Anonymousx2
Posted 02 February 2008 at 08:39 am

Lisette said: "Passenger pic - guy looks like Dracula!!!"

I agree that he looks like the Hollywood version of Dracula due to his advanced case of adolescentum frontalis calvities.

However, both the chap in the photo above and Bela Lugosi bear little resemblance to Bram Stoker's Dracula.


Vako
Posted 02 February 2008 at 01:12 pm

"Buttock-numbing bumpiness"

That gave me a good laugh !


Flying Merkel
Posted 02 February 2008 at 01:37 pm

jjwoods said: "I wander where it is now."

Cut up into scrap. I read somewhere else about the Brabazon in a book titled " The World's Worst Aircraft ". The nosewheel is in a museum. According to the book, it extends and retracts at the push of a button for the edification of the kiddies.

And that's what you get for your 3.5 million 1=5 U.S. pre-inflation dollars pounds. A triumph of politics and engineering over common sense. Wonder if Lord Brabazon changed his name later?


soulkitchen
Posted 02 February 2008 at 01:49 pm

Anyone know why the propeller blades were counter-rotating?


superslicedog
Posted 02 February 2008 at 01:59 pm

i just dont understand how you can make a product that costly and not have buyers lined up first


GigsTaggart
Posted 02 February 2008 at 02:35 pm

The props counter rotated so the plane wouldn't turn left. :P

Planes that have non counter rotating props tend to pull to one side, especially during take off. This makes them harder to control. With so many horsepower behind the props on this huge plane, it would have probably pulled hard if the props were not balanced.


GigsTaggart
Posted 02 February 2008 at 02:43 pm

SuperSliceDog: One word: Socialism.


Doofus
Posted 02 February 2008 at 02:53 pm

soulkitchen said: "Anyone know why the propeller blades were counter-rotating?"

The torque from the propellers can be cancelled by having another propeller on the same axis rotate in the opposite direction.

This was really a beautiful plane. It is too bad that it didn't find a place in avaition. Extreme planes have a tough time in the commertial world. Look at the Concord. It had no competition but it also had virtually no market. My favorite is the SR71 Blackbird. It too has no competition but it is now a museum piece.


Andy Roid
Posted 02 February 2008 at 05:30 pm

Actually the SR-71 is a museum piece because it is obsolete. Its job was to safely spy on the enemy, a task performed by spy satellites today.


gMac
Posted 02 February 2008 at 07:29 pm

This was certainly not the only example of aviation technology coming well ahead of its time that emerged soon after the end of the war. Anybody remember the Northrop Flying Wing (I think it was the XB-49)? That was something truly extraordinary that never 'took off' (a really bad pun I know...) until decades later as the super ultra-expansive B-2 Spirit (and maybe coming soon to an airliner near you). Unknown to many Canadians A. V. Roe of Toronto developed the world's second jet airliner (the C102) in 1949. It flew only 13 days after the de Havilland Comet. It actually had some commercial interest. Unfortunately it was sidelined due to a need for the company to focus on its jet fighter. Too bad, as the military technology was, in the end, far less lucrative than the potential commercial possibilities, but again few could comprehend the possibilities at the time. There are, no doubt, many others.


oldmancoyote
Posted 02 February 2008 at 08:23 pm

SR -71: Pulled out of mothball status for recon in Iraq. Sattelites used for spying are either on the move and only pass by on schedule or they are in one place all the time. Recon aircraft can get the right angle whenever you need it.


Ravusaedes
Posted 03 February 2008 at 02:53 am

4 things regarding the SR71 -- and this is hearsay confirmation would be awesome. 1 - The SR71 is the only plane to be retired by the US Military and then recommissioned. 2 -It was designed by hand so well that they are still trying to figure everything about why it works as well as it does. 3 - It is hugely expensive to fly as it needs the heat of friction to close up the holes in the airframe and tends to leak fuel till that happens. 4 - The SR71 never reached maximum velocity, because it nearly went into orbit a few times and once it goes high enough the control surfaces don't work so well... It is a truly fantastic piece of engineering. Useful in todays age of satellite imagery? Well possibly as said above -- in the right circumstances. Matt, great article -- thanks!


lydokane
Posted 03 February 2008 at 03:33 am

Looks like it was the Edsel of air transportation.


InterestedOne
Posted 03 February 2008 at 06:52 am

Economics did indeed do this plane in. Although increasingly more so today, the role of economics in business decisions has to be vetted. I won't comment on Ravusaedes' questions on the SR-71, but will add that it was one of the first acknowledged jets utilizing ram-jet technology - basically the faster it goes, the faster it is able to go (physics notwithstanding of course). Of course if it's speed you're interested in, scramjet technologies like the x 43 have that covered. Of course, who knows how long that will last as the costs are a bit overwhelming. For now, NASA continues to receive budget dollars, because it has shown, economically, that its technologies have value - in gov't (e.g. DoD) and public sectors.


flatrick
Posted 03 February 2008 at 09:15 am

Rather boring article, nothing damn interesting about it.


davethecave
Posted 03 February 2008 at 09:53 am

conman32 said: "Did airports around the world have enough runway space to support such a behemoth at the time???"

Filton airport's runway had to be extended to allow for the Brabazon. The local village of Charlton was demolished to make way for it.
The Brabazon hanger was later used for production of Concorde. I think I recall hearing on the news that the Brabazon hanger is due to be demolished. I drove past earlier today and there is certainly lots of construction work going on in the area, the view of the hanger is obstructed so I don't know if it is still there or not.
DI from a personal perspective on the grounds that I was thinking about the lost village this afternoon and remembering Grandfather talking about how he used to live there.


CptPicard
Posted 03 February 2008 at 11:04 am

DI, as this one was something I had never heard of. Interestingly, the British/European aircraft industry has had a history of these kinds of futuristic projects that still fail commercially. Compare this to the De Havilland Comet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Havilland_Comet) -- which even looks remarkably similar in fuselage construction -- and of course, the high-tech flop of all time, the Concorde.

I'm really glad that at least Airbus seems to be clued in to the needs of the market and not only a technology leader... I have high hopes for the A380.


supercalafragalistic
Posted 03 February 2008 at 05:13 pm

Aviation is a pretty complex subject. It takes a lot of brainpower to build something like that. More power to them. Back in the days when tv wasn't that popular people found other things to do besides rot their brain.


drizen
Posted 03 February 2008 at 06:16 pm

supercalafragalistic said: "Aviation is a pretty complex subject. It takes a lot of brainpower to build something like that. More power to them. Back in the days when tv wasn't that popular people found other things to do besides rot their brain."

However we did stop watching the TV long enough to invent larger TV's.


kiwi_guy
Posted 03 February 2008 at 06:53 pm

Doofus said: "The torque from the propellers can be cancelled by having another propeller on the same axis rotate in the opposite direction."

These pictured above are contra-rotating props. A lot of energy is wasted in the airflow that is rotating behind the prop. A second prop turning the opposite way takes advantage of this disturbance. It's unusual to see these on a commercial aircraft as they are usually for military or high-performance.

As far as a single prop plane goes, it has rotational airflow traveling around the fuselage and hitting the tail on one side, causing it to turn. The pilot then has to compensate for this with rudder to the opposite direction. This is especially during takeoff, otherwise you end up running the plane into the aerodrome or control tower, or whatever else. If a contra-rotating prop setup is on a single engined aircraft it will have this rotational airflow canceled.

If anyone wants to see a similar story about abandoned craft have a search for the Soviet space shuttle. An even sadder story.


kiwi_guy
Posted 03 February 2008 at 07:08 pm

If anyone wants to see a similar story about abandoned craft have a search for the Soviet space shuttle. An even sadder story."

Found the page I remembered: http://www.buran-energia.com/bourane-buran/bourane-fin.php DI.


oldmancoyote
Posted 03 February 2008 at 08:24 pm

nice link, kiwi-guy.


BubbaNator
Posted 04 February 2008 at 01:55 am

Off-topic, but fun to read anyway:

"Though I fly through the Valley of Death... I shall fear no evil. For I am at 80,000 feet and climbing."
- Sign over the entrance to the old SR-71 operating base at Kadena, Okinawa


FixitDave
Posted 04 February 2008 at 02:50 am

DI Matt, thanks for writing it


USNSPARKS
Posted 04 February 2008 at 06:18 am

After seeing some SR-71 posts I figured 2 true tales would be okay.

In his book, Sled Driver, SR-71 Blackbird pilot Brian Shul writes:
"I'll always remember a certain radio exchange that occurred one day as
Walt (my back-seater) and I were screaming across Southern California 13
miles high. We were monitoring various radio transmissions from other
aircraft as we entered Los Angeles airspace. Though they didn't really
control us, they did monitor our movement across their scope.
I heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its ground speed."90 knots" Center
replied. Moments later, a Twin Beech required the same. "120 knots,"
Center answered. We weren't the only ones proud of our ground speed that
day as almost instantly an F-18 smugly transmitted, "Ah, Center, Dusty
52 requests ground speed readout." There was a slight pause, then the
response, "525 knots on the ground, Dusty." Another silent pause.

As I was thinking to myself how ripe a situation this was, I heard a
familiar click of a radio transmission coming from my back-seater. It
was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew,
for we were both thinking in unison. "Center, Aspen 20, you got a ground
speed readout for us?" There was a longer than normal pause.... "Aspen,
I show 1,742 knots" (That's about 2004.658 mph who don't know)

No further inquiries were heard on that frequency.
--------------------------------------------------
In another famous SR-71 story, Los Angeles Center reported receiving a
request for clearance to FL 600 (60,000ft). The incredulous controller,
with some disdain in his voice, asked, "How do you plan to get up to
60,000 feet?

The pilot (obviously a sled driver), responded, "We don't plan to go up
to it; we plan to go down to it." He was cleared.
-------------------------------------

BTW, I have a small text file filled with numerous hilarious aviation stories.
If you'd like a copy post your EMail address here or Email me. Just add
"@COMCAST.NET" to my ID above. Please put "aviation humor" in subj line so I
don't trash it as spam.

Best Regards.


Richard Solensky
Posted 04 February 2008 at 08:29 am

The Post-WWII era was a great one if you were an aircraft designer. Anything seemed possible, and there was plenty of money available to try!

The U.S. Navy was worried about supersonic fighters taking off and landing on aircraft carriers - so they commissioned the Convair F2Y Sea Dart - a supersonic sea plane! Also from the free-wheeling minds at Convair was the XFY-1 "Pogo", a VTOL craft. "So?" you say? This one took off standing on its tail, pointing straight up! To land the thing, you needed a rear-view mirror! Then there was the McDonnell F-85/X-85 "Goblin", a jet fighter that was to be carried aboard a bomber and dropped from a "trapeeze" as needed, and then snagged out of mid-air when the fighting was over.

All of these worked in test flights...


cabdude
Posted 04 February 2008 at 09:05 am

Re the contra rotating props - this also allows for a more compact configuration with the powerplants closer to the centreline. If you increase available power to a prop, you have to increase the props diameter, or lose efficiency. Compare the Spruce Goose - 8 engines driving 8 props and spread out all along the wing. Using contrarotating props allowed them to drive each with 2 engines, and place the thrust sources closer to the fuselage. This reduced asymetric thrust and freed up the space outboard of the engines to use for fuel tanks, increasing range, while placing the engines inside the wings instead of outside in nacelles reduced drag by something like 25%.


Radiatidon
Posted 04 February 2008 at 10:08 am

As one poster stated that the SR-71 would “close up” as it accelerated is correct. During fueling the ground crew would wear fire suits since the SR-71 would literally leak fuel over most of its length. Though not necessarily a fire hazard since the SR-71 utilized JP-7, which has a flash point of 60 °C (140 °F) in order to help cope with the friction created heat issues. The fuel was also use to help cool the craft’s skin, avionics, the cabin, and used as hydraulic fluid before being burned to help reduce weight.

The SR-71’s fuel also contained fluorocarbons to increase its lubricity, which made it extremely difficult working around the bird during fueling. In order to ignite the fuel, tetraethylborane vapors were injected into the engine; which explodes into flame when exposed to air with a green flash. This stuff kicked started the JP-7 into a free burn, and it was also used to kick the afterburners into life. Though the gas is integral to running the engines, only 20 fl ounces of TEB was carried for each engine’s operation, enough for approximately 16 uses.

Since the aircraft was designed to travel at mach 3 plus (3.2 to be exact), its design needed to be radical. Thus the titanium (most of which was obtained from the USSR, quite humorous if you think about it since the aircraft was mainly designed because of fear of the USSR) panels were attached loosely to the airframe. A fast pre-fueling was performed on the ground, and then the bird took off to for a quick sprint to “close-up” the skin to complete the fueling in the air. Once she reached cruising speed, the aircraft actually gets longer in length.

Since it does operate at such high speeds, friction is a major issue. For instance the canopy (the “window” that covers the crew’s area for any who don’t know the term) would be in excess of over 300 °C. Toast your marshmallows at a good 15 feet.

The initial design was to help decrease the SR-71’s radar signature. If you look at the aircraft head on, you will see the signature chines. These are the sharp edges running on each side of the nose back along the fuselage. The military wanted these, as at the time there was a theory they would help reduce the radar signature. The designers did not want them as it was thought they would reduce the aerodynamics of the bird. The designers caved in and add the chines. When the design was tested in the wind tunnel, they discovered that the chines actually generated additional lift and help increase the SR-71’s aerodynamic performance. This allowed the rear delta wings to be reduced in size increasing stability and less high-speed drag. It also allowed an increase in fuel and reduced the required landing speed of the craft. Now all high-speed aircraft include chines as a matter of design importance.

Though the body design of the aircraft gives it a radar signature of a small barn door (unlike the F-117 which has a radar signature smaller than a baseball), whereas an aircraft of its size has a signature greater than the whole barn, the SR-71’s heat exhaust has a signature the size of a major office building. This was a major detail that was used when designing the stealth fighter and bomber of the US arsenal.

Though the exhaust was a major targeting item, the blackbird simply out flew any missile fired at them as that was the standard SOP for this craft. Of the 32 manufactured, 12 were lost not by enemy fire but though mistakes in handling or equipment failure. Of the remaining aircraft, all but two have been retired to museums. One is featured in the movie with Will Smith “I am Legend” on the New York floating museum Intrepid Aircraft carrier. Of the two still in service, they are owned and operated by NASA.

The SR-71 could survey 100,000 square miles per hour at 80,000 ft with the accuracy of being able to take a readable picture of an auto’s license plate. It is the only manned craft able to maintain an absolute altitude at 85,068 plus. It is the only aircraft that the engines are designed to run continuously on afterburner. It is the only aircraft designed in which the engines became more efficient in thrust and fuel usage as the speed was increased. Otherwise the engines produced more thrust and used less fuel at Mach 3.2 than at subsonic speeds.

These were really very remarkable birds for their time.

As a youth in Idaho, we would lie out on the lawn on summer evenings and watch as the Blackbirds would fly over us out of Vandenburg in California heading out on missions back in the 1960s. I recall seeing once in awhile a green tint to the streak of light and hearing the hard “Poomb” when the birds would hit Mach. It was not until many years later that I discovered this was the tail-tale sign of the TEB being injected to kick the engines into afterburner. .

Seeing the birds being fueled in winter was also unique. The ground crew moving around in silver fire suits. The bird hissing as fuel leaked across the skin, looking like the jet was full of dry ice that now billowed from the craft in flowing, white clouds, with silver streams of fluid pouring to the ground and pooling there. A truly different scene than what one was used to seeing when an aircraft was being fueled on the tarmac.


J.K.
Posted 04 February 2008 at 10:25 am

USN thanks for those laughs on a stupid Monday.

...and rick, if you found the interesting part of this article beyond you, would you perhaps be interested in a shiny nickel spinning around on a piece of string? :)


smokefoot
Posted 04 February 2008 at 10:42 am

The problem with contra-rotating props is that they interfere with the aerodynamics of each other, decreasing the efficiency of both compared to two separate props (or one bigger prop with the same theoretical thrust).


sid
Posted 04 February 2008 at 11:52 am

Radiatidon said: "Once she reached cruising speed, the aircraft actually gets longer in length.

As opposed to longer in width or height?

Aside from that bit, I believe Radiatidon has inserted a DI article within a DI article comment. I've always been fascinated with the Blackbird. Maybe a full piece incorporating Ratiatidon and the humorous bits from USNSPARKS should be fleshed out.


kiwi-guy
Posted 04 February 2008 at 01:33 pm

cabdude said: "Re the contra rotating props - ...Compare the Spruce Goose - ... ...."

Hey, full circle (albiet a small one.)

Howard Hughes designed the XF-11, with contra-rotating props. The right engine failed and reversed the propeller pitch, sending Hughes into Beverly Hills. (<jed_clampett>Swimmin' pools, movie stars.</jed_clampett>)

I guess the calculations for the second prop would have to be exact.


Radiatidon
Posted 04 February 2008 at 02:32 pm

sid said: "As opposed to longer in width or height?."

Moving at Mach, the pressure of the atmosphere "sliding" across the skin of the craft would press the panels inward "seating" them tightly. This actually caused the jet to decrease in height and width while increasing the length. The titanium used in construction was picked for its ability to withstand the high heat and and stress forces created during Mach flight. They discovered quite by accident that the titanium actually grew stronger with each flight due to a type of tempering from the high heat and pressure.

One interesting fact was the pilots main gripe with the Blackbird is with the main windscreen. You see it is a quad (four) pane window. The twin panes in front of the pilots have a center support post. This obscured the pilots view of what was directly in front of the jet. In order to land for instance, the pilot had to lean to the right or left in order to see the runway. Not the most desirable position when trying to correctly line up on the runway.

On the dark blue skin of the blackbird there are red lines. These indicate areas too weak to support a persons weight due to no support spars beneath and the skin's thinness. ;)


USNSPARKS
Posted 04 February 2008 at 03:39 pm

sid said: "and the humorous bits from USNSPARKS should be fleshed out."

Send me your EMail address and you'll have the whole kit and caboodle. Since the humor is really OT that's probably the best way to go. I've sent 7 copies out so far.


Poor
Posted 04 February 2008 at 03:43 pm

DI.
On the topic of SR71, I remember a while ago that I heard a story about a model kit of a Blackbird that was released before the actual plane had been declassified. I can't remember specifically but I also recall that the same model maker released a kit of a stealth bomber, also before it was revealed. Does anyone else remember anything like this? I can't find anything.


sid
Posted 04 February 2008 at 03:48 pm

Radiatidon said: "Moving at Mach, the pressure of the atmosphere "sliding" across the skin of the craft would press the panels inward "seating" them tightly. This actually caused the jet to decrease in height and width while increasing the length. "

I figured there was an explanation as to how it happened, so i wasn't questioning that. I just thought the comment "longer in length" was a little awkward sounding. I always thought the only direction something could get longer was in length. Wouldn't "the aircraft actually gets longer" (without the "length" qualifier) have said the same thing? Conversely, I'm not sure what application would allow "longer in width" or "longer in height."

Nonetheless, more interesting info on the Blackbird. I'm sure there's much more that would be DI.


sh0cktopus
Posted 04 February 2008 at 03:50 pm

sid said: I believe Radiatidon has inserted a DI article within a DI article comment."

No offense to The Don, but his post was basically just a summary of the Wikipedia article on the SR-71, except for the last two paragraphs. Additionally, according to Wikipedia, NASA retired the last two Blackbirds in 1999, which I confirmed at NASA's website.

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/news/FactSheets/FS-030-DFRC.html

I have to say, the Blackbird looks a hell of a lot cooler than the Brabazon, plus it has a better name. I have no doubt that the Brabazon employed advanced technology for its time, but it looks like one of those $5 foam gliders that you put together out of three pieces. Thanks for a DI article, "Cattle Mast."


Radiatidon
Posted 04 February 2008 at 04:24 pm

Poor said: "DI.

On the topic of SR71, I remember a while ago that I heard a story about a model kit of a Blackbird that was released before the actual plane had been declassified. I can't remember specifically but I also recall that the same model maker released a kit of a stealth bomber, also before it was revealed. Does anyone else remember anything like this? I can't find anything."

The only incident I can think of was the F-19 model kit released by Testors/Revel. Though this was not an actual model of the Skunk Works F-117. Model designer John Andrews using his imagination, in fact created the F-19 model in the early 1980’s. He based it on the SR-71, information gleaned from various articles on the new stealth technology including both fiction and fact, and from an insider’s tip from a friend working for a military subcontractor involved on the actual aircraft’s nose.

The model ended being either copied or the design leased by other model and toy companies. Congress did not notice the model/toys until one of the test stealth fighters crashed. At which point they brought the supposed scandal to the lime light by wanting a panel to find out how a top secret aircraft was being sold as a toy and as a model to anyone interested in it. Which when it was discovered no more than a toy designer’s own invention, it caused a few red faces in congress.


baconbits
Posted 04 February 2008 at 04:25 pm

oldmancoyote said: "Fairly typical of the era: Technology and engineering for a product that had no demand.
I would imagine the cost of a flight would have been too extravagant for all but a few."

A Greyhound bus ride in those days was only reserved for the wealthy.


oldmancoyote
Posted 04 February 2008 at 06:29 pm

I remember the F-19 model kits. They looked a bit too Star Trek for my tatse back then. Amazing hiw well the imagination worked for them.


apotheosis
Posted 05 February 2008 at 09:36 am

Personally, I loved the F-19, and was sorely disappointed by the "real" stealth fighter's ungainly appearance.


USNSPARKS
Posted 05 February 2008 at 05:17 pm

Poor said: I also recall that the same model maker released a kit of a stealth bomber, also before it was revealed. Does anyone else remember anything like this? I can't find anything."

If memory is correct way back in the late '50's Revell put out a large model of the USS George Washington. It was pretty neat, it had hinges along the bottom. This allowed one to pull the entire starboard side down so you could see all the spaces inside the sub. I vaguely remember there was a small stink about the model since the GW was the first SSBN. Don't remember the details. The model was pretty cool though, especially since I owned one. GGGGG


supercalafragalistic
Posted 05 February 2008 at 06:34 pm

drizen said: "However we did stop watching the TV long enough to invent larger TV's."

That's hillarious!!! LOL!


korale
Posted 05 February 2008 at 11:28 pm

Dont forget the Saunders-Roe Princess, the aquatic sister to the Brabazon. Its quite a DI story by itself http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saunders-Roe_Princess


Pakistani Emergency
Posted 06 February 2008 at 12:07 am

In 1991 I was living in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. I was going to school attending 7th grade at Dhahran Academy, which just happened to be next to an airbase occupied by Americans during the first Gulf War.

It was a happy crazy time for a kid, with loud sirens alerting us to impending scuds from Iraq about to hit, all us kids grabbing our gas masks and running to the bomb shelters, followed by the ground shaking lauching of the Patriot missles aiming intercept the scuds. Glancing up to the skys while frantically running towards the bomb shelter & trying to put the gas mask on at the same time always brought something interesting into view. Whether it be the Patriots racing up up and away to destroy what otherwise would destroy us, a scud that made it past the patriots to rain death on its target, or the best one... the great flash bang and boom of a patriot intercepting one of Saddam's scuds.

Besides all that, we were privy to watch all sorts of fighters and bombers that were constantly taking off and landing at the airbase. Particularly impressive were the quiet, almost bird-like stealth bombers that looked like triangles floating in the sky.


Hoekstes
Posted 06 February 2008 at 03:57 am

1949, 20 years before the Boeing. It looks almost like a Boeing with props. Amazing. DI.


justinflippy
Posted 06 February 2008 at 04:27 pm

For a similarly sad story, read up on the Avro Arrow... a plane years ahead of its time, destroyed and dismantled by poor political decisions.

A dark part of Canadian History.


Bewildered
Posted 06 February 2008 at 05:49 pm

quetzalcoatl035 = Wanker

I'd love to have flown in that! The chicken coup, crammed in, 3rd class seats are terrible for a 12 hour flight!


sd9sd
Posted 07 February 2008 at 09:09 am

Timmmm said: "Shame."

That's the first word that came to my mind too when I finished reading the article. Looks like [the alleged] Mr. Count Vlad (shown in the last picture) sucked the life & blood out of the plane! ;)

Being an engineer, I've learnt about fatigue, stress, strain etc...From the first picture of the plane it looked like as though the wings might break off when it flew :) But the aerial view of the plane offered more credibility to it's airworthiness.


CanInternet
Posted 07 February 2008 at 10:16 am

On http://www.movietone.com you can find some old newsreels about the plane.
Just register for free and search for Bristol Brabazon.


fvngvs
Posted 08 February 2008 at 05:43 am

What a gorgeous plane! I'd fly in it, especially, like the man said, for a 12-hour flight.
There's also some nice video on youtube. Check out the interior of the thing!

I want one. I'll park it in the stable next to my Concorde. Both gone now, alas.


shatteredmindofc
Posted 08 February 2008 at 10:08 am

I'm saddened by the replies of "what a waste" and so on. These are the type of people that want to stop funding NASA.


my2cents
Posted 11 February 2008 at 10:08 pm

another viewpoint said: "…sometimes you have to "push the envelope" to see what eventually falls out. And sometimes the by-products of such endeavors are worth more than the whole. As an example; going to the moon. We didn't really have to go there, but NASA showed that it could be done. A whole lot of products, companies and industries were the result of investments made in the moon race. Was it worth it? One man's garbage is another man's treasure."

My thoughts exactly. It's easy to say that it was a waste of money b/c we know now that it wasn't utilized as desired, but back then they were spending money on knowledge expansion and dreams. There's hardly anything more worthwhile than spending your money on hopes and dreams, even if they do prove to be short-lasting.


cabdude
Posted 13 February 2008 at 02:35 am

I remember one other thing about the Brabazon. The standard practice when designing aircraft at the time was to calculate the thickness of metal required for a certain component of the aircraft, and then order the next thickness up to compensate for errors, variance in quality, etc. This would have made the Brabazon far too heavy - instead they had to be much more precise in their calculation of the gauge required, and then inspect the quality of the components far more carefully. This experience led to advances in material science and aeronautical engineering, among other things. Near enough was no longer good enough.


ratboy7
Posted 23 February 2008 at 07:56 am

Radiatidon said: "The only incident I can think of was the F-19 model kit released by Testors/Revel. Though this was not an actual model of the Skunk Works F-117. Model designer John Andrews using his imagination, in fact created the F-19 model in the early 1980’s. He based it on the SR-71, information gleaned from various articles on the new stealth technology including both fiction and fact, and from an insider’s tip from a friend working for a military subcontractor involved on the actual aircraft’s nose.

The model ended being either copied or the design leased by other model and toy companies. Congress did not notice the model/toys until one of the test stealth fighters crashed. At which point they brought the supposed scandal to the lime light by wanting a panel to find out how a top secret aircraft was being sold as a toy and as a model to anyone interested in it. Which when it was discovered no more than a toy designer’s own invention, it caused a few red faces in congress."

The kit was made by Testors. Revell had nothing to do with it. At the time, Testors had an affiliation with Italieri, an Italian plastic model maker. This is what caused the stink. I distinctly rememeder a congreessman or senator (don't remember his name) stating that he was miffed that an Italian model company knows what the stealth fighter looks like and he, as a memeber of the U.S. government, has never seen it. Of course the kit was based on supposition and I don't recall the senator eveer saying "never mind" when photos of the actual plane being released. I'm looking at the model right now.


PudgeDiesel
Posted 29 February 2008 at 02:43 pm

SR-71: New a test pilot that flew it. He said one reason it never reached its top speed was friction, the plane actual began to melt.


Goofball
Posted 07 March 2008 at 01:43 am

Brabazon isn't all that impressive. The B-36 was of comparable size and performance. It had been flying since 1946.


liquidgarnet
Posted 06 April 2008 at 07:53 am

soulkitchen said: "Anyone know why the propeller blades were counter-rotating?"

The reason behind this is simple. If all the propellers rotated CW, the aircraft would have a tendency to roll towards the right. If you counter-rotate the blades, this effect is cancelled out.


Anthropositor
Posted 01 August 2008 at 08:50 am

Uh, I am not an expert in aircraft, but if you meant clockwise by CW, then the aircraft will tend to roll to the left.

Some of the elements of this story reminded me of the Komet, a rocket aircraft utilizing as one of its' fuel components a very concentrated hydrogen peroxide which often blew up ground personnel during fueling. If memory serves, the Nazi's changed fueling procedures in some pretty important ways, no longer trying to pump both components of the fuel into the plane at the same time.

While it was probably the fastest fighter in the sky at the time, it was of extremely short range. Another interesting feature: to keep the weight to a minimum, the wheeled undercarriage was abandoned on takeoff. If the pilot was lucky enough to survive his mission, he had to do a powerless, gliding belly-landing. I think the aircraft had something like five minutes of powered flight. Once out of fuel, they were extremely vulnerable to our P-51 fighters. They used various methods of assisting the take-off. Had the Germans been more wise than they were in deciding to develop aircraft carriers, we could have had considerably more trouble dealing with this aircraft.


traveingwoods
Posted 10 October 2008 at 11:51 am

were the run ways even long enough?


ambrosen
Posted 01 March 2011 at 04:57 pm

Amazingly, there's some footage of this flying that was recently found: worth a look at http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/bristol/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8313000/8313848.stm


Grandmaster Ramrod
Posted 15 December 2011 at 10:47 am

I just registered today to say two things:

1. Love the website. All the articles I've read so far are indeed Damn Interesting! Keep up the fine work!

2. I live in the UK, on a housing estate that is near the former site of a RAF base. All the street names have some sort of aeronautical name, for example Barnes Wallis Close, Sunderland Close etc. At the back of the estate, there is a road that leads nowhere (I think there may have been a time when expansion of the estate was on the cards, never happened) and the road is called Brabazon Way. Useless information I know, but I thought it was at least semi-interesting...


harveybristolboy
Posted 20 October 2013 at 11:08 pm

conman32 said: "Did airports around the world have enough runway space to support such a behemoth at the time???"

I do not know - But my early life was spent next to the Runway in Filton, Bristol - where the Brabazon was built. My parents told me that the runway had to be lengthened at Filton to accommodate the Brabazon (ne 1947)


harveybristolboy
Posted 20 October 2013 at 11:11 pm

conman32 said: "Did airports around the world have enough runway space to support such a behemoth at the time???"

I do not know - But my early life was spent next to the Runway in Filton, Bristol - where the Brabazon was built. My parents told me that the runway had to be lengthened at Filton to accommodate the Brabazon (ne 1947)

jjwoods said: "I wander where it is now."

None of the Brabazons were saved - they were broken up and scrapped. The Undercarriage assy may be inspected in Filton, Nr Bristol England.


Ralphie
Posted 07 December 2013 at 03:38 am

Interesting how many British projects post-war were ruined by Great Britain's greatest drawback - the class system. With the exception of the Viscount, British manufacturers, run largely by upper class twits in management or government, designed aircraft to transport the upper classes and/or exclusively for their own airlines' limited needs; the USA designed aircraft to transport the masses and for the needs of airlines across the world. It's interesting to speculate on how Britain's aviation industry would have prospered with the American approach. Britain's aircraft industry was years ahead of the USA in technical innovation, but the Americans were skilled marketers and ruthlessly ambitious - a combination the poor old Brits simply couldn't understand or imitate.

Brabazon 2 was designed for turboprops, with economy and trouble-free operation in mind. I wonder how it would have gone if it had been built and configured for say 250 passengers in all-economy.


Passenger
Posted 20 March 2014 at 08:00 pm

This reminds me of 3 similar American late-1940s projects for huge double-decker propeller airliners. These were the Lockheed Constitution, the original Douglas DC7, and the North American C-49 (I believe) which was a passenger variant of the huge B36 bomber. All 3 of these designs had prototypes built for USAF, which served as military transports, and all 3 were encouraged by PanAm Airlines which placed tentative orders. But, PanAm soon decided the transatlantic passenger market was too small to justify, and cancelled the orders.


bill
Posted 28 May 2014 at 09:47 pm

Richard Solensky said: "The Post-WWII era was a great one if you were an aircraft designer. Anything seemed possible, and there was plenty of money available to try!

The U.S. Navy was worried about supersonic fighters taking off and landing on aircraft carriers - so they commissioned the Convair F2Y Sea Dart - a supersonic sea plane! Also from the free-wheeling minds at Convair was the XFY-1 "Pogo", a VTOL craft. "So?" you say? This one took off standing on its tail, pointing straight up! To land the thing, you needed a rear-view mirror! Then there was the McDonnell F-85/X-85 "Goblin", a jet fighter that was to be carried aboard a bomber and dropped from a "trapeeze" as needed, and then snagged out of mid-air when the fighting was over.
All of these worked in test flights..."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The WW2 German aircraft designers and builders had VTOLs designed using jet propulsion. One named Lippich was far ahead of the rest with his delta wing designs and went to work for Convair after the war.
The Goblin was the jet powered version of a portable fighter escort that was developed in the '30's for blimps. The Goblin was the most hideous aircraft ever designed.


Les Boe
Posted 04 July 2014 at 08:03 pm

USNSPARKS said: "After seeing some SR-71 posts I figured 2 true tales would be okay.

In his book, Sled Driver, SR-71 Blackbird pilot Brian Shul writes:
"I'll always remember a certain radio exchange that occurred one day as
Walt (my back-seater) and I were screaming across Southern California 13
miles high. We were monitoring various radio transmissions from other
aircraft as we entered Los Angeles airspace. Though they didn't really
control us, they did monitor our movement across their scope.
I heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its ground speed."90 knots" Center
replied. Moments later, a Twin Beech required the same. "120 knots,"
Center answered. We weren't the only ones proud of our ground speed that
day as almost instantly an F-18 smugly transmitted, "Ah, Center, Dusty
52 requests ground speed readout." There was a slight pause, then the
response, "525 knots on the ground, Dusty." Another silent pause.
As I was thinking to myself how ripe a situation this was, I heard a
familiar click of a radio transmission coming from my back-seater. It
was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew,
for we were both thinking in unison. "Center, Aspen 20, you got a ground
speed readout for us?" There was a longer than normal pause.... "Aspen,
I show 1,742 knots" (That's about 2004.658 mph who don't know)
No further inquiries were heard on that frequency.
--------------------------------------------------
In another famous SR-71 story, Los Angeles Center reported receiving a
request for clearance to FL 600 (60,000ft). The incredulous controller,
with some disdain in his voice, asked, "How do you plan to get up to
60,000 feet?
The pilot (obviously a sled driver), responded, "We don't plan to go up
to it; we plan to go down to it." He was cleared.
-------------------------------------
BTW, I have a small text file filled with numerous hilarious aviation stories.
If you'd like a copy post your EMail address here or Email me. Just add
"@COMCAST.NET" to my ID above. Please put "aviation humor" in subj line so I
don't trash it as spam.
Best Regards."

I would enjoy the aviation stories. Tks, Les


END OF COMMENTS
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