Saturday, May 29, 2021

A Technological And Also Political Appendix to Postblogging Technology, February 1951


"Sabre Dance" is a movement of the final act of Khachaturian's Gayane (1942), crossing over to mainstream popularity in 1948, and a perennial favourite of figure skaters and, more recently, "sexy violinists" ever since. I'm not 100% sold on "sexy violinist" Youtube videos, but it's pretty hard to make money in classical music these days, so whatever. Subsequently, "Sabre Dance" was a bit of low-hanging fruit when the various aeronautical eccentricities of the North American F-86 Sabre became apparent at the height of its technological, pop-cultural, and, yes, political fame over MIG Alley three years later. It's not quite in the moment. These things often aren't. I've also referenced Chuck Berry's Run, Rudolph, Run in connection with the F-86, and it came out in 1958. It's hard to keep things historically grounded. The things you might imagine, happened together, are actually off a few, critical years. 

On the other hand, politics makes and unmakes connections as it will:

I've scraped the Wikipedia seat map of the outcome of the 23 February 1950 British General Election mainly because it's cool. When I looked at it the first time, I was amazed that the SNP was competitive that far back, but the bluer blotch across the Highlands seems like it might just be a graphical error. 

"It has also emerged that he was offered cabinet office in 1951 by . . . Winston Churchill"
A short summary of the results is a 5.8% swing to the Conservatives, giving Labour 46.1%, the Conservatives 43.4%, and the Liberals 9.1%. The Conservatives gained 90 seats, leading to a Labour majority of just 8 seats as of close of polls. This was deemed to be too slim a majority for a stable government. I'd like to tell you what The Economist thought of it, but UBC's back issues are locked up in the Corona times. Still, Time has been keeping us up to date with all the non-confidence motions ongoing. In the end, it was the government that pulled the plug, on 25 October 1951, leading to Winston Churchill returning to government with a twenty seat majority in spite of losing the popular vote, albeit by a razor-thin 0.8%, more than enough to secure a majority in a three party(+) system. The Tories would win again in 1955 and 1959. 

Switching to my "historian of technology" hat for a moment, that would give the Conservatives custodianship of the British warfare/welfare state technological grand strategic project. That project may be discerned even before before 1923, when a commentator at a Royal Aeronautical Society salon gave it the perfect expression: "If I were young, he would run away to the air." The intent was to joke about the childhood threat to "run away to the sea," but as a national policy it implied running away from the geographical constraints that seemed to close Britain off from a future amongst the great powers. Unable to match Russia and the United States in arable acreage, Britain could still  seek a way forward, up and out, by reaching for a technological future. Unfortunately, the only thing Britain could leverage to gain the ascendancy on the white hot frontier of technology was national will, but as long as the country remained determined, per ardua ad astra! 

In concrete terms, Attlee's government inherited the National Government's ambitious wartime iteration of the national strategy, strategic bombing. Whatever one made of its Second World War incarnation, the advent of the nuclear age meant that future great power status was bound up in atom bombs and the means to deliver them. Leaving the bombs aside, that meant the "future bomber," imagined as a plane capable of carrying a 10,000lb weapon 2000 miles at 500 knots and 50,000ft.  And although the costs of the domestic nuclear weapon play a starring role in the history of postwar British grand strategy, there is something starkly amazing about the "V-bomber" programme that delivered production strategic nuclear bombers from Handley-Page, Hawker Siddeley (Avro) and Vickers-Supermarine, as well as a flying prototype from Short Brothers.  On top of that, the Vickers Valiant entered service almost a year before the B-52. While the Valiant's vital statistics do not hold up well in comparison with the B-52s, even after decades of upgrade, there are things to be said for the later Vulcan and Victor in the hardware side.

 There is room here, then, for an argument to the effect that the Conservatives blew the Labour lead. There is also, of course, a counter-argument, that Britain could not afford to keep on going down the path that Labour had blazed, but it is not my experience that this kind of argument resonates with the kind of people who vote conservative on national security grounds. Instead, when asked to defend the Conservative record on national defence, Labour is positioned as technologically feckless. 

In political rhetoric, as in love and war, there is no "fair." Any apologist for the Attlee government's "bid for air supremacy" has to take the arguments as they are, not retreat into petulant whataboutism. And one of those arguments can be boiled down into "What about the sweptback wing?" Apologists for the failure of a truly fast British fighter to, well, exist in January of 1951 can point to the high climb rate of the Vampire and the Meteor all they like. It does not matter. There is no plane in RAF livery that can keep up with an F-86 or a MiG-15 in MiG Alley. The Australians having tried for almost a year to get a Hawker product, the P. 1081, are left with a thoroughly unsatisfactory upgrade of the Meteor and a burning determination to buy F-86s the moment that they can.

It is all quite embarrassing, and the Attlee government, desperate to show willing in the struggle to defend "Western civilisation" against a Communist threat that could hardly be dismissed just because it didn't exist, crowned its own hot fudge sundae of humiliation with a maraschino cherry's-worth of Canadair F-86 Sabre, of which 300 would be ordered for the RAF, to be kept in service for an even shorter length of time than the Boeing Washington.

What happened? The standard explanation is that the Germans had been ready to deploy fighters with sweptback wings in 1945 (or already had, if you choose to count the Me 262), that the rest of the world had been commonly and incomprehensibly slower to adopt the new-fangled technology, and that the British had been slowest of all. The standard apology for that is less often Labour than that Britain drew a goose-egg in the postwar search for German high technology, a position that seems a bit fatuous when the content of the BIOS studies is given a cursory glance or the composition of the BIOS teams by nationality is considered. In reality there were no British "interim" fighters to even put swing-wings on. The Swift and the Hunter were the postwar fighters, and those programmes proceeded to completion on Labour's original ten-year schedule, appearing alongside the V-bombers and the atom bombs the latter were to carry. 

None of that is, I think, new or particularly controversial. Where postblogging has its advantages is its deep roots in the current, and here I think those roots deliver again. Never, ever, before I actually started reading the week-by-week news would I have even imagined just how dangerous postwar aviation was. I've made a bit of a fuss out of the Martin 2-0-2 because it was just so egregious, and we'll get to the Comet when we get to it, but episodes like "two Air France-DC-4s crash[ing] two days apart within a few miles of each other and under similar circumstances" in the early summer of 1950, or the saga of the Avro Tudor, or the as-far-as-I-can-tell completely unremarked rash of KLM Constellation crashes leave me wishing for something a phrase a little stronger than "regulatory capture."  

What has this to do with F-86s and Sabre Dances? In the course of 1950, 63 North American F-86 Sabres were involved in air accidents, including 7 in December of 1950. Another 7 were lost in January of 1951, and  5 in February, 6 in March, 8 in April, 10 in May, 14 in June, for a total of 113 in 1951. January of 1952 racks up 17 crashes, including 4 write-offs on  Friday, 25 January, albeit with only 1 fatality out of a total of 47 in these 193 write offs, a loss rate that makes the Bundeswehr's F-104 fleet seem safe by comparison. 

The North American corporate history of the F-86 development says that the company was guided by German research indicating that a thin, swept wing would reduce drag and delay compressibility onset at transonic speeds, and that automatic leading edge slats would eliminate the low-speed stability problems to be expected of such a design. The advantages of a swept-wing are presented as a simple trig function, which means that a swep back in the range of 35 degrees (much greater than that of the Me 262, or, for that matter, DC-3 or Swordfish), is needed to see any significant results. 

The fact this is such a straightforward geometric intuition, comparable to the basic concepts of streamlining, suggests to me that this wasn't the insight it is sometimes portrayed as being. The real issues are,first, structural, in that a sweptback wing needs to be stronger for the same unit length, while thin structure means less depth to resist shear and torsion; and, second, air flow diverging across the wing, tending to stall the wing tips. In the F-86, oriented with the wing tips at the centre of gravity, the result is a "rapid and powerful pitch-up followed by a stall." Wikipedia article associates this "Sabre Dance" with the F-100 Super Sabre, an an aircraft with serious safety issues. Wing fences, as on display in the MiG-17, shown in the inset photograph above, were a preferred Russian solution. The F-86 was more likely to suffer from the already-mentioned problems with low speed stability, especially after the automatic slats were removed, with over-rotation on takeoff causing many fatalities, including 22 deaths in Sacramento in 1972, when Richard Bingham flew his privately owned Canadair Sabre V into an ice cream parlour.

It would be inappropriate to suggest that these accidents were somehow a product of American fecklessness. The Russian safety record seems to have even been worse, and the steady proliferation of wing fences on the early MiG family might be read as the counsels of despair as much as anything else. For its part, the RAF had to abandon the Swift entirely, although there seem to have been more accidents due to undercarriage failure than aerodynamics. 

The politically partisan would conclude that there is that military aviation rushed into sweepback too quickly, and that it is not fair to castigate Labour for the lack of  an early British sweptwing fighter. On the other hand, given that everyone else got away with  it, I can't say I'm convinced. 

A more viable conclusion is that the whole controversy is political, and rooted in arguments over aviation policy in the lame duck parliament session of 1950--1. Whatever the merits of the individual decision, "What about sweepback" turns outto be a good riposte to quirestion about the cancellation of the VC7, Blue Streak and Black Prince. The technological history, in this case, just is political history. 


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