Friday, April 07, 2006

The future that never was (3)

Britain could have broken the sound barrier

Persistant WWII rumours that allied fighters broke the sound barrier in dog fight dives are almost certainly mistaken, it's extremely unlikely even the ground breaking German Me 262 jet fighter managed the feat. In November 1945, an RAF Gloster Meteor raised the official airspeed record to 606.25 mph.

Two years later, as every American schoolboy knows, Chuck Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight, on 14 October 1947, in the Bell X-1 after being dropped by a B-29 bomber at 20,000 feet.

The first British aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound was the stylish DH 108 Swallow on 9 September 1948.

The future could have been different. In 1942 the British Air Ministry offered the small firm of Miles Aircraft a top-secret contract (E.24/43) for a turbojet research plane to attain supersonic speeds. Dropped from a bomber, the Miles M.52 would aim to reach 1000mph at 36,000 feet in 90 seconds.

With no warplane in mass production Miles Aircraft were free to indulge in 'blue skies' thinking.

The M 52 sported wafter thin wings to minimise drag, wings "clipped" to clear the 'V' shock wave produced by the aircraft's nose at supersonic speeds. A vital innovation was its 'all-moving tail', the key to early supersonic flight control, superceding traditional two piece stabilizer/elevator designs. Supersonic heating was little understood, so the M.52 was built of stainless steel instead of duraluminum.

The lone pilot sat in cone shaped nose, separate from the fuselage. In extremis explosive bolts would blast this pressurised pod clear with the pilot, somewhat improbably, parachuting to safety. The shock cone in the nose, designed to slow incoming air to the subsonic speeds required by the engine, would became common on later aircraft.

Frank Whittle, father of the British jet engine, produced the powerplant, the afterburning W2/700, which became the successful Rolls Royce Derwent. A ducted fan increased power by boosting airflow through the system.

At the close of World War II, with 90% of the design work done, the first of three M.52's was more than half complete and test flights were only a few months away. However in February 1946 the new Labour government, with typical visionary flair, slashed the military and science budget and the Director of Scientific Research, Sir Ben Lockspeiser, canceled the project.
" view of the unknown hazards near the speed of sound ....... considered unwise to proceed with the full scale experiments."

Late in 1944 the Air Ministry had signed an agreement with the United States to exchange high-speed research and information. The Bell Aircraft company was given all of the drawings and research on the M.52, but the US reneged on the exchange and no data was forthcoming in return. Without informing Miles, Bell had begun construction of their own rocket powered supersonic design but were battling the problem of control. The Miles all-moving tail proved the perfect solution. The Rolls Royce Derwent engine appeared in the USA as the General Electric Type 1. And so, in the future that happened, the sound barrier was broken in a clone of the M.52, the XS-1.

Seeking to deflect widespread criticism of their cancellation of the M.52, the Government began a small new programme involving "no danger to test pilots and economy in purpose." - expendable, pilotless, rocket-propelled missiles. The Royal Aircraft Establishment developed the rocket motor and the great Barnes Wallis - of the "bouncing bomb" - worked on the design. The rockets were essentially 3/10 scale replicas of the M.52 and the first launch took place on 8th October 1947.

A light bomber took off from RAF St. Eval in Cornwall with a rocket strapped to its belly but the motor exploded shortly after launch. In October 1948 a second, and final, rocket was launched, reaching Mach 1.5 before gloriously ignoring radio commands to ditch into the ocean and flying out, undaunted, across the Atlantic.

Engine: 1 W.2/700 Jet with augmentor and afterburner
Wing Span: 27 ft
Length: 28 ft
Weight: 7,710 lb
Maximum Speed: 1,000 mph at 36,000 ft

Naturally, some communist sources claimed the Soviet Union had broken the sound barrier in 1946 using a captured German experimental rocket plane. No evidence was ever produced and files which have emerged since the collapse of the USSR exposed them as groundless.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading the article about the M52. It never stops to annoy me how many times the British have invented, researched and created somthing that would take man kind forward and up the evolutionary ladder. Only to give it away to the americans to take all the credit! It's time the British inventors and scientists were recognized and credited for their work and contribution to man kind all over the World!


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