This is going to be a bit of a different aviation-related diary. While much of the writing at Kossak Air Force deals with classic aircraft and/or flying experiences, this one is going to discuss some of the elements that result in real-world aircraft, and one fantasy flying machine that anticipated a number of developments we’re seeing today.
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Aircraft design is as much an art as a science. Any design is a balancing act, a series of trade-offs against often incompatible objectives, an attempt to exploit available technology and expertise, to push them to the limits and beyond. Get it right, and the result can be a classic, where form not only follows function, it's beautiful. Get it wrong, and the result can be a machine that doesn’t do anything well.
Boeing’s problems with the Dreamliner show that even in the relatively simple world of designing airliners - carry enough paying passengers and luggage point to point with operating costs that allow a profit - can be harder than it looks. Military aviation is even more challenging.
It all starts with an idea. Sometimes it builds on earlier work - other times a design may start as a blank sheet of paper. Sometimes it's the answer to a shopping list of requirements. Sometimes it's a gamble on new technology making the previously unattainable within reach.
Often, the key factor is someone with real talent and a strong vision of what the aircraft should be, able to resist the temptation to add on irrelevancies or incompatible features. There are few aircraft that fare well from a “design by committee” approach, or the “All things to all users” approach. The F-111 comes to mind. Neither quite successful as a fighter or a bomber, tweaked to serve the Air Force and the Navy in different editions, neither of which worked out that well in practice. One reason the F-35 Lightning II is having development troubles is that they’re trying to make one basic design serve three different roles. Doing any one of them well is tough enough - but three?
Other times, there’s some particular requirement that shapes a design. The advantage of designing around a specific task is that decisions about what trade-offs to make are a lot simpler. The Lockheed U-2 is an example - fly high and far while taking pictures. (And a lot more now.) The A-10 is another - provide close air support in a tough, maneuverable package that can get ‘down and dirty’ while deploying massive firepower in a hostile environment.
Some aircraft persist simply because nothing else comes close to doing what they can do, or the design is just 'right'. The DC-3 / C-47 is the classic example. Then there’s the C-130 Hercules. In continuous production for decades, it just keeps getting better. The last B-52 off the assembly line just had its 50th birthday not long ago - and the Air Force expects it and its siblings to be operational for some time to come.
Death by bean counters is a not uncommon problem. It’s expensive to design, build, maintain, and replace/refurbish a fleet of operational aircraft. It’s even more so when that fleet includes different types of aircraft optimized for different roles. The temptation for people wielding the budget knife is to convince themselves that some new technology can replace several different aircraft with a super-duper Swiss Army Knife type that can do it all. Or you get a demand for certain requirements that pretty effectively constrains other capabilities if they don't outright cripple the design. (Example from shortfinals here, discussing the Stirling.)
How well this works in practice is - usually not. Consider walking into a car dealership for example and saying you want something that handles like a Mazda Miata with the cargo capacity of a Ford F-100. Or even more fun, imagine trying to build something like that. Every time someone develops a new technology, or comes up with a new way of applying an old one, hope springs eternal as visionaries play with possibilities.
Flight of Fantasy
So, just for fun, let’s look back at a fantasy aircraft dating back to when the jet age was just getting into full swing, and the space age was still taking baby steps. Amazing things were in the news all the time from the world of aerospace. Maybe something like the vehicle about to be discussed is still impossible - but oh what a wish list! There is some dispute about the exact specifications; the list is compiled from several sources and from the missions it flew. (Some may be able to identify it from these alone.)
• length 27 feet, 3.5 inchesAll of the above refers to Supercar, “the Marvel of the Age”. It was the center of a show aimed at a young audience by Gerry Anderson, better known for later shows like Thunderbirds. Here's the opening titles that show off Supercar's abilities. (Who says fly by wire is all that new - Supercar did it with strings!)
• width (wings extended) 18 feet, 9 inches (wings retracted) 11 feet 6.5 inches
• height 5 feet 7 inches
• weight with fuel 6945 pounds
• maximum speed 3,000 mph* (Several flights specifically state 4,500 mph)
• full vertical take off and landing capabilities; full hover, including with a 70 ton payload secured externally via magnetic grapple attached to belly hard points.
• routine cruise at supersonic speeds, with hypersonic dash capability - 4,500 mph+
• economy cruise: 2,500 mph at 50,000 feet
• operational ceiling 101,000+ feet; capable of reaching LEO with special fuel additive
• runway requirements: none - and can maneuver at ground level on air cushion like a hovercraft.
• retractable wings for ground clearance on take off/landing.
• transition from flight to water operations, submerged: dive from altitude to submerge and launch from underwater directly into flight.
• dive to 25,000+ feet submerged
• range without refueling: global. No mid-air refueling capacity
• armament: optional missiles mounted in external fairing, optional ultrasonic cannon for underwater use.
• hull and cockpit canopy: bulletproof
• powerplant: hybrid experimental design including combination of air-breathing turbines and rockets, plus turbo drive for underwater propulsion.
• fuel: avgas, but type not specified.
• avionics: advanced electro-optical system capable of seeing through weather (Clear-Vu), moving course plot on map display, radio with global range w/o satellite links. No autopilot capability or radar. Telemetry links to base of operations.
• stealth capabilities: sound suppression system to reduce engine noise; hull completely transparent at visible wavelengths with special coating applied
• capable of full remote control operation, with or without crew on board, with video link via Clear-Vu
• single pilot operation (yoke, not stick), with provision for co-pilot, side by side seating. Rear bench seating for 2 passengers. Optional ejection seat for pilot; descent by rockets
• Shirt sleeve environment in cockpit throughout operational range; cosmic radiation protection suggested for near space operations
• Limited internal cargo capacity, maintained at cabin environment
39 Episodes were produced from 1961 to 1962 at a studio in England - although the Supercar base was set in America, at Black Rock, Nevada. The episodes were all filmed in black and white; but photographs and illustrations show it would have been very colorful. The distinctive look of Supercar may have its roots in this automotive fantasy by some theories - but it still has an incredible coolness factor today, especially with that paint job.
The cast was all marionettes; strings are visible in a number of shots. Chief pilot was Mike Mercury; Professor Rudolph Popkiss and Dr. Horatio Beaker were the technical wizards behind Supercar. (Dr. Beaker in particular is a kind of alpha-boffin; and like another Doctor from England, he has a taste for Jelly Babies) The Supercar team is filled out by young Jimmy Gibson and his mischievous simian companion Mitch. (Mitch alternates between causing disasters and saving the day.)
Despite the relatively short run of Supercar, it still has a dedicated following. There's an extensive fan site here that has cast bios, detailed schematics and graphics, and much more. There's a Supercar model for Flight Simulator, and you can have your own if you spend any time in Second Life. The complete series is now available on DVD (AAE 70834, at Amazon and elsewhere) For those of a certain age, hearing the distinctive sound of Supercar's engines is enough to bring on chills!
Life Imitating Art, and Vice Versa
Supercar stories were written with an eye to what was happening in the world of aviation and elsewhere. Dr. Beaker's provenance reflects the early lead England had in the development of jet engines and electronics. (According to his bio at the fan site, he once worked for Vickers Aviation.) The story written around the highjacking of a Boeing 707 is a reflection of when that aircraft was becoming synonymous with luxury air travel. (It was being stolen for a petty dictator who wanted to trade up from a Fokker Triplane!) Mitch the Monkey had a misadventure with an experimental space capsule out of jealousy over Ham the Space Chimp. Supercar's deepest ocean dive was to rescue a bathyscaphe very much like Trieste.
Several of the stories anticipate contemporary events. One episode had Supercar making an emergency run to a research base near the North Pole in the middle of winter to pick up a researcher for a medical emergency; Seventy-b-lo. The challenges were not all that different from this story from real life, although the Herk crew didn't have to deal with a mercenary at gun point. Another tale revolved around the Supercar team investigating how a small un-named country was trying to smuggle atomic bombs into the U.S. for a sneak attack - an early look at terrorism? The episode where Supercar was forced down over the Amazon at a Lost City by a mad scientist working from an underground base staffed by robots from which he was planning to launch a nuclear-armed missile at New York City is still fantasy fortunately - although one wonders if it inspired this cinematic effort.
It's the technology depicted in Supercar that still fascinates as much as anything. The ability to take off and land vertically and then transition to forward flight has found a number of solutions over the years, such as the Kestrel, the Harrier, the Osprey, and the F-35B variant of the Lightning II. Then there's this perennially promising project which has yet to deliver let alone fly a working model.
Speaking of stealth, in one episode Dr. Beaker developed an engine modification that reduced the noise of Supercar's engines by roughly half; noise reduction is still very much on the minds of aircraft designers today. In another he accidentally developed a special paint that rendered Supercar completely invisible rather like Wonder Woman's invisible jet. Modern aircraft are more concerned with being radar invisible, and manage it by a combination of special materials and attention to shape.
Supercar's ability to resist gunfire is certainly convenient. In the course of the show it proved impervious to handguns wielded by spies and tommy guns in the hands of gangsters. In real life, aircraft are not so sturdy. There's a trade off between protecting the pilot and critical systems, while still keeping the aircraft light enough to fly! The A-10 is notable for putting the pilot in a titanium bathtub for protection.
If there is one area where Supercar technology has been surpassed, it's in the avionics. We can now operate drone aircraft remotely via satellite links around the world, and receive imagery in real time. Nova's Rise of the Drones spells it out in detail; the Argus system is mind-boggling. Night vision goggles and new radar technology make peering through darkness and cloud routine. As for moving map displays in the cockpit for navigation - well that is now becoming a standard feature even in general aviation thanks to computers and the Glass Cockpit.
Supercar's underwater capabilities still remain largely unmatched. The Tomahawk cruise missile can be launched from underwater from a submarine - but it's a one-time deal. Drones launched from subs for surveillance are also being developed. Beyond that, a far more ambitious project is being contemplated for a large drone that can be launched from underwater and eventually retrieved by the parent sub. A full-blown man-carrying flying sub is still probably not in the cards - although DARPA can dream.
Supercar's engines still remain fantasy. It's a bit much to picture what kind of engines could provide enough thrust for VTOL and hypersonic flight without running the tanks dry in minutes, not to mention being able transition to underwater operation and back into flight. As for reaching LEO, well a rocket that could breathe air at least part of the way to orbit would offer some real advantages - and as it turns out there just might be one under development in England, the Sabre engine for the Skylon aerospace plane.
With the Sabre engine in jet mode, the air has to be compressed before being injected into the engine's combustion chambers. Without pre-cooling, the heat generated by compression would make the air hot enough to melt the engine.emphasis added
The challenge for the engineers was to find a way to cool the air quickly without frost forming on the heat exchanger, which would clog it up and stop it working.
Using a nest of fine pipes that resemble a large wire coil, the engineers have managed to get round this fatal problem that would normally follow from such rapid cooling of the moisture in atmospheric air.
They are tight-lipped on exactly how they managed to do it.
"We are not going to tell you how this works," said the company's chief designer Richard Varvill, who started his career at the military engine division of Rolls-Royce. "It is our most closely guarded secret."
The company has deliberately avoided filing patents on its heat exchanger technology to avoid details of how it works - particularly the method for preventing the build-up of frost - becoming public.
The Sabre engine could take a plane to five times the speed of sound and an altitude of 25 km, about 20 percent of the speed and altitude needed to reach orbit. For space access, the engines would then switch to rocket mode to do the remaining 80 percent.
Hmmm - that's starting to look like Supercar level performance, if they can pull it off. Dr. Beaker would be proud!
Gerry Anderson and the people he brought together to make Supercar and the later shows that followed came up with a lot of fantastic vehicle designs. For the day they looked pretty exotic, but who's to say if they may not have inspired some aircraft that could yet take to the skies? The blended wing concept looks like something Derek Meddings might have cranked out for an episode of an Anderson show. The BBC has a whole flock of concepts that are being considered for future aircraft.
Inspiration works in other ways as well. The DVD Supercar collection has a feature where Peter Jackson talks about being inspired to become a filmmaker in part by growing up seeing the world Derek Meddings built for Thunderbirds. That show looks like it may be headed for a revival - Thunderbirds Are Go Again!
Will there be a Supercar reboot? Probably not, although you never know. It's tempting to imagine what the show would be like today with the technology that's available for special effects. In a way, the basic concept of the show - an exotic, high-performance aircraft used by a group of idealists to do rescues and other good deeds - was recycled in the 1980s by the show Airwolf. Still, all-in-all, it's hard to imagine the charm of the original show being recaptured. It was made in a very different era, and our flights of fantasy these days are colored by very different concerns.