Sunday, August 19, 2012

 3 Things That 
Should Never Fly
But Totally Have...

There comes a time in every engineer's career where he has a nutty idea - and then immediately dismisses that idea as too crazy or irresponsible to ever take beyond the 'Wow, that would be cool' stage. 

Then that engineer goes and makes a cup of tea, and moves on to better things. 

This list is all about engineers that didn't back off. They got a wild hair...and stuck with it.

No matter how insane it sounded.

Two of the crazy ideas on this list come directly from World War Two. One of the ideas is from the German, and another from the Russians. 

The third is a post-war American entry, and is definitely the the most mental of the bunch. The Germans and the Russians, well, at least their ideas weren't dangerous to anyone except the poor bastard flying their concepts. 

The Americans, however, that's another kettle of fish altogether....

3. Soviet A-40 Krylya 

We know that tanks don't fly, right? 

Well, you know what I mean

I shouldn't have to tell you this. One look at a tank, and the first thought that's not going to pop in your head is: "I wonder how well that sucker glides?"

Military transport aircraft such as the C-5 Galaxy or the C-141 Starlifter have been moving Americans tanks around since the 60s. No biggie. 

The C-130 Hercules has been dropping tanks into hot-spots across the globe for a long time, as well. 

Tanks can either be flown into a war-zone, pulled out the back of the craft at high speed over a nice, flat field, or dropped in by parachute.

In 1942, the Russians didn't want to mess with any of that nonsense.

Under orders from the Soviet High Command, aircraft designer Oleg Antonov took a good long look at the Soviet T-60 Light Tank, rubbed his hands together - and proceeded to put wings on the damn thing.

Antonov built a special set of fabric biplane wings with a twin tail, and pasted the mess to the T-60 tank. It is presumed he then said, "There! I fixed it!"

This contraption was intended to be towed - in large numbers - to a war-zone by a Tuplovev TP-3 bomber. 

The towline would then be cut, the tank-plane would glide to a safe landing on its tracks, tranny in neutral. Then the T-60 would drop its wings and be ready for battle.

Things did not go according to plan.

The -T-60 needed to lightened so it could be towed aloft. This meant removing the armor, ammo and fuel. 

At this point, Antonov should have thrown up his hands and reached for nearest bottle of vodka...because a tank with no armor, ammo or fuel is really just a paperweight.

Captured T-60

The first flight test did indeed go well. Sergie Anokhin, the test pilot in the tank-plane, reported the glider characteristics were good. The A-40 Krylya landed on an improvised battlefield, then was driven back to base. 

I have deduced that 'Anokhin' means 'really big balls' in Russian.

The reason the program was cancelled afterwards? 

The bomber tow-plane wasn't strong enough to pull the A-40, and the Soviets didn't have anything bigger. Too bad.

2. Blohm & Voss BV-141

I have always had a certain fascination with Blohm &Voss aircraft. This German manufacturer started life building large ships, then Germany started gearing up their logistics arsenal in the mid-30s. 

When the German High Command asked them to start putting together a few transport aircraft, the engineers at Blohm & Voss went totally balls-out. 

The BV 222 - a six engine behemoth with diesel power - was the largest flying boat to see service in World War Two. The engineers put this sucker together without batting an eye, and a whole bunch of other successful designs as well.

The were not, however, invited to submit a design for a new recon plane with excellent visibility in 1937. Arado was, because they had experience in single-engine aircraft. So did Focke-Wulf.

Did that stop Blohm & Voss? Not for a second.

I should pause for a moment and tell you that the Germans did indeed have some crazy aircraft. The Messerschmitt Comet and the Heinkel Salamander are two very good examples. But these were conceived in the dark, desperate days of the war. 

The BV-141, the plane nobody asked for, was thought up before the war even began.

The BV-141 is asymmetrical...and fucked up. Those are the technical terms. The fuselage is basically a cylinder with a BMW radial engine on the front, and a half of a tail at the rear.

Nobody sits in the fuselage. The wing is off-center, and midway along the spar is a three-passenger compartment for the poor pilot, gunner and observer. 

To be honest, as an observer in such an aircraft, the only thing I'd be noticing were my crapped trousers.

The BV-141 supposedly flew normally at low speed due to the P-Factor, which is an aerodynamic phenomenon encountered with fucked up aircraft, I guess.

At high speed, things were a little different. The aircraft could only be kept on the straight and narrow by excessive amounts of trim. 

There was a complicated formula involved with drag versus asymmetric thrust and a bunch of other crap concerning the BV-141. If they'd just built a normal airplane, none of this would have necessary. 

Reportedly, once a pilot got the hang of things, the BV-141 was easy to fly. But nothing could overcome the aircraft's odd looks.

Strangely, 20 BV-141s were built, but the BMW engine was needed for the Folke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter, and production was cancelled.

I will say this in the BV-141's defense. Looks can be very deceiving.

After the war, Boeing built the B-47 Stratojet, a very good-looking long range bomber. The Stratojet was a complete failure.

Then they built the B-52 Stratofortress, which looks like an ugly line of trucks in a convoy. The B-52 is still being flown today, and has a planned service life until 2040. That's a lifespan of nearly a hundred years. For an ugly-ass plane nobody believed in back in 1945.

1. Convair B-36 Peacemaker

Be honest with me here. What did you think the number one thing that shouldn't fly would be?

A submarine? An ice-cream truck? A bevy of Playboy models?

Give up?

Try a nuclear power plant. Sweet Jesus, I wish I was making this shit up.

First things first. The Convair B-36 was the biggest bomber ever built. Period. 

It had a 230-foot wingspan, could fly 6,000 miles without refueling and could haul 73,000 lbs. of nuclear bombs.

The B-36 was powered by six 28-cylinder radial engines pointed backwards. This pusher arrangement works well on small airplanes, but turned out to be a major problem for Convair. 

The engines, because of a lack of frontal cooling, caught on fire. A lot.

Catastrophic engine fires weren't the only problem. The B-36 also suffered from massive electrical failures and a shit-ton of fuel and oil leaks that mechanics couldn't access.

Broken Arrow....

Yes, we all know that the American military has lost a few nukes in accidents. The B-36 was involved in two such incidents, one in 1950 and another in 1957.

So, it was natural the military would choose this problematic aircraft for a nuclear reactor program.

What could possibly go wrong?

In 1946, NEPA was born, the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft program. This morphed into the much simpler ANP, the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program. 

The idea was simple. 

A nuclear reactor could theoretically provide unlimited jet aircraft engine power in the form of Indirect-Cycle or Direct Cycle configurations. 

In a nutshell, a jet bomber would take off under power with normal fuel, then the reactor would spin the turbojets using nuclear heat. And the U.S. Air Force pretty much perfected this in a series of ground-rig tests - called HTREs - in 1949.

But more data was needed. Would, let's say, the reactor kill the crew? The air force higher-ups thought this might be important. I have no idea why.

Shielded cockpit

ANP initially modified two B-36s to see if shielding the crew from on-board radiation generated by a nuclear power plant was possible. 

In 1952, a 35,000 lb. reactor that could make 1,000 kilowatts of power was installed in the modified bomb-bay of Test Aircraft B-36H-20-CF. 

Over the course of several years, this B-36 made 47 test flights while the reactor was up, running, and at critical mass.

Reactor being loaded up

The crew were protected by water tanks, tons of lead, rubber and thick glass during the nuclear propulsion experiments, which did not power the aircraft itself. 

The military just want to see if flying around our nation with something much worse than a big-ass atomic bomb would be doable...and for shits and giggles.

And in my estimation, this was somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 billion dollars worth of giggles. Those are some good giggles.

The program was cancelled as high-flying interceptors and new air-to-air missiles came into being. 

In the nuclear bomber program's defense, it had started in 1941, and the only thing you had to worry about at that time were certain German antiaircraft guns good for about 40,000 feet. 

After the war, all of that changed.

But imagine if the program had gone on. Nuclear bombers that could fly around the world on a chunk of uranium the size of a golf ball...that's impressive. 

Even more impressive would be a nation of radioactive three-eyed kids running around after an accident.

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