Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging, June 1949, I: Need for Speed

It's coming for you! Not unlike three schedule changes in five days. Blah blah can't finish the postblogging installment blah. Fortunately, I have a technological appendix up my sleeve that seems doable in good time before I have to start getting ready for the afternoon shift that I've had since 11:30 yesterday morning. 

I'll start with the observation that BEA has uncancelled the Vickers Viscount purchase because advancing ground control technique has unsnarled the horrendous "stacking" issues of 1947. I've had Reggie comment on that, but I'm not Reggie, and I'm not exactly expecting people to hang on to every word in the postblogging posts. That's why the pictures are there! It is very much worth pointing out again, right here, how rapid improvements in air traffic control practice during the Berlin Airlift advanced the cause of commercial jet aviation over the summer and winter of 1948.

Or maybe it is the Airspeed Ambassador's wing problems, which seem to have disappeared down the memory hole except for references to the disappointing performance of its NACA-profile laminar flow wing. There's probably something to be said here about the overselling of the P-51's wing profile, and about Airspeed's unseemingly ambitions, as well as about the final failure of the civil Centaurus. 

But mainly this is about the huge favour that Uncle Joe has done the world by starting this fun little Cold War thing. More to come in --checks the calendar, can't believe it-- a year when we finally get around to the Korean War. Fast planes, like the world communist revolution, are literally just around the corner. 

One thing that has happened on the postblogging front is that the automated retrieval system was able to fetch every volume of Flight except the one that covers June of 1949 (or maybe I was just too frazzled to notice that I was holding it in my hands). As a result, I don't have a hand taken version of the very nice top down Flight picture of the prototype Supermarine Swift that you'll see here, and, what the heck, as a snip here:

I was honestly gobsmacked that the Swift appeared, flew, and was named so early. The Canberra-to-be seems to be under a no-publish order in Britain, but here's a top down of the RAF's first swept wing fighter. It's not the only snip from next month that I've got to show you, either. 

There's your De Havilland Comet being rolled out of the hangar in the 28 July issue. (Spoiler alert.) The Viscount doesn't have a similarly dramatic rollout since it has been dribbling out from Weybridge in various prototypical forms for a year now, but the Tay Viscount is dramatic news that I'm not spoiling. I have to admit that I find it hard to get excited about yet another jet testbed. Yes, that's not fair from an avionics point of view. The Tay Viscount went off to do hush-hush mystery work pioneering Boulton Paul's powered control system for the Vickers Valiant. The website from which I crib goes on to describe its later work as developing an "electrically signalled flight-control system. Still with Boulton Paul (a company later absorbed into the Dowty Group) it carried out several years of research on electrically signalled flight-control systems which are only now coming into use." Still, it's only yet another jet-on-a(turbo)prop plane. 

The same cannot be said for the Rolls-Royce Tay. Now that's excitement. A scaled-up version of an early centrifugal jet, the Nene, the Tay didn't breach any technological frontiers, apart from some very scantily described improvements in temperature performance, but it was adopted by the US Navy as the Pratt and Whitney J48 and by Hispano Suiza as the Verdon, the engine of the Dassault Mystere IV.

Zoom! The Mystere IV is misleadingly described here as the first French supersonic fighter. It also went into the Grumman F-9 Cougar, the United State's Navy's embarrassed response to the MiG-15.

By Arjun Sarup - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The RAF wasn't keen on the Tay because it had dropped serious money on the Avon, with two of this post's crop of debutantes, the Canberra and Swift, sporting what must be pre-production Avon 101s.  That's a four year development history, in spite of troubles with inlet vanes, compressor and the original, single-stage turbine. 

While Reggie speaks for me when he talks about his distaste for Geoffrey Smith's editorial voice over at Flight, the insufferable twat has a point about the world-beating edge of current British jet engine design. Whatever we can say about the counterfactual world where Jumo and Mercedes-Benz continued development for the German Air Force (apart from that it would be dystopian nightmare), in this timeline, there's no beating British-made in the summer of 1949. 

True, the Swift and the Comet will go on to be disappointments. But, still! Did you realise that the RAF's first swept-wing fighter was rolled out a year before the Korean War? Yes, it won't be ready to fly in MiG Alley (ever), but that's because its development was upended by the substitution of the Avon for the Nene, and Supermarine never really got it back on track. 

Which is, certainly, an interesting thing that happened. What's up over at Vickers-Supermarine? Since I'm doing screen snips today, I might as well go all in.

Although the Viscount is in the news in June of 1949 because BEA has pretty clearly indicated that a purchase is on the way, it won't be until August of 1950 that a definitive 20 aircraft order is officially received. BEA's first proving aircraft flew a revenue/publicity service in the summer of 1950, and introduced regular services in April of 1953. By this time, orders were pouring in. As G. R. Edwards  of Vickers predicted in 1949, once passengers had a chance to experience the comparatively quiet and vibration-free environment of a turboprop, they had no desire to go back to hanging between 2000hp piston engines. The high block speed of over 300mph didn't hurt. Passengers enjoyed extra convenience, while operators made a higher profit from higher utilisation rates. Forty-two aircraft were on order by the end of 1953, 160 by the end of 1954. In 1957, Vickers Weybridge was producing 3 Viscounts a week, and the plane was selling even in the American market. 

So what I'm saying here is that, thanks to unexpected demand for the Viscount (and the Dart), resources are being sucked away from the Swift, maybe? The fact that Rolls Royce is able to mobilise mass production of the Dart and the Avon at the same time is pretty interesting, though. 

So every good thing must come to an end. Vickers took a bath attempting to follow up the Viscount with the Vanguard, with Fokker ironically showing that the way to go was to revert to the smaller, earlier versions of the Viscount, or something like it. The author of the Wikipedia article on the Viscount (the scholarship, it burns!) links to a lugubrious 1976 New Scientist article that shows that, from the perspective of that low down, dishonest decade, the Viscount was a fluke in a story of relentless failure. "More than £1500 million at 1974 prices has been ploughed into the country's civil aircraft and aero-engine industries since the Second World War. Less than £150 million has been recovered, and only one project --the Vickers Viscount-- has returned more to the national exchequer than it has absorbed." At a 1955 price of £235,000 per plane and 440 sold, it's not precisely clear how The New Scientist is totting up the numbers. The BAC 111, which sold 244 aircraft in a production run that extended through 1981, is listed as returning £6.1 million on a launching aid of £45 million, which seems like beyond awful management or questionable accounting. But what do I know?

Moving back to 1949, however, the industry has its biggest export success yet, ahead of it, albeit in the military market, as the Americans are persuaded to license and build an entire British design as the Martin B-57. The decision to adopt a British design over the three American medium jet bombers already in service in 1949 seems to confirm the wisdom of not going all in for interim designs. The B-57 also got a licensed-built British jet engine, although Martin went for the Armstrrong-Whitley J65, license-built by Curtiss-Wright as the J65. The urgency behind the B-57 may have had something to do with doubts within the USAF that they had an practical means of delivering the atomic deterrent. The B-36 controversy isn't being carried on with any excess of candour, and the Navy's plan to use P-2 Neptunes as interim atomic bombers is ridiculous. 

This might require some comment, as I've hitherto only noted the problem on the surface ship side. The munition is also a bit of a problem. Reasoning from the the limited on the bomb bay size of the maritime reconnaissance plane, which precludes it carrying Mark 4, a less sensitive and somewhat more powerful version of "Fat Man," dropped on Nagasaki, the Navy comes around to demanding production of a modified Mark 1, the "Little Boy" enriched-uranium gun-type bomb used at Nagasaki, on the grounds that it would be a good weapon to use against the submarine pens the Russians haven't built yet, but might. The thing is that Little Boy uses highly enriched uranium, which is much more scarce than plutonium. At the moment, the Americans are producing enriched uranium to feed reactors that need it to initiate chain reaction. The reactors, at this point power sinks rather than power plants, are needed to produce plutonium, but also the neutrons required to irradiate the polonium for the initiators, which have a short half live requiring constant renewal. As the repercussions of the Soviet atom bomb test roil through the American security establishment and Congress' febrile positioning for the 1950 midterms and the 1952 Natural-Governing-Party-Returns-At-Last Presidential election, America will add tritium to the list of scarce strategic materials that compete with highly enriched uranium. 

All of this will ultimately lead to the Mark 5 atom bomb, which reduces the Fat Man's 60" diameter to 39" by using a composite uranium/plutonium core. The context here is a lot of reactor-building, and, for that to be financially possible, McCarthy and the Korean War. The Mark 5 is Neptune, and, more importantly, Canberra-deliberable. While the B-57 hasn't even vaguely intercontinental in range, but it does have the speed and altitude to do what the B-36 and B-47 are misleadingly claimed to be capable of doing. I guess this story really comes to an end with the B-52, although the fact is that the land-based leg of the American strategic triad is always going to be a sore point for the Air Force just because Moscow is so damned far away. 

It's too bad, because maybe if the Americans had been persuaded to license build the Victor, the British aerospace sector wouldn't have ended up being a "net loss to national welfare." 

This post hasn't got very far past other ones in understanding just how the story became one of "net loss to national welfare." Did aerospace fail Britain all on its own, or is this an exogenous story of chickenshit politicians being afraid to put their money where their mouths were? As opposed to being slow to recognise sunk-cost fallacies as we more commonly, and perhaps, cynically now say. 

One thing's for sure: The last summer before Korea is shaping up to be Britain's summer of speed. 

1 comment:

  1. I think that you mean that the J65 was a license-built Sapphire