Plane of the Week Holiday Special #25 & 26: Christmas Bullet

After a brief holiday break from writing we shall return to our regular schedule. But first, the Plane of the Week Holiday Special: the Christmas Bullet.

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The Christmas Bullet is generally acknowledged to be the worst airplane ever built. Not only was it designed so terribly that both prototypes crashed and killed their pilots, but its designer, Dr. William Whitney Christmas, was, according to one aviation historian, the “greatest charlatan to ever see his name associated with an airplane”.

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Lets start with Dr. Christmas’s lies. Firstly, he claimed that he had hundreds of aviation patents and that he was swamped by orders for Bullets from Europe and he had a million-dollar offer to rebuild Germany’s air forces. None of this was true, but he did (claim to) get the US Army to pay him handsomely for his wing design, another lie. One of the more fantastical claims made to the US government by Dr. Christmas was that he could design an aircraft capable of flying to Germany on a mission to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm II. He did receive a patent for the Bullet design in 1914, and later claimed to have sold the rights to his design for moveable ailerons in 1923, for $100,000. However, these were also false and he wasn’t even the first person to use movable ailerons, anyway.

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Lies.

Moving on to the airplane, it is very clear that Dr. Christmas knew very little about designing aircraft. The wings had no struts or support beams because he thought that aircraft wings were supposed to flap like a bird, and indeed the wings of the Christmas Bullet did- they flapped right off the plane. The Christmas Bullet was extremely heavy for its small size at 2100 pounds and the unsupported, flimsy wings peeled right off, causing the death of the pilots of both prototypes. And the worst part is, when the first one crashed and Dr. Christmas had to contact Continental to get a new engine so he could rebuild it, he told them he was building an additional prototype. Technically, this was true, so perhaps this statement was the most truthful thing he ever said about the Christmas Bullet.

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Another issue with the Bullet was that it was built with hardwood and sheet metal. Modern airplanes are built with all metal, so this may not seem strange, but at the time airplanes were built of wood and canvas. This certainly contributed to the aircraft’s excessive weight. The weight of the Christmas Bullet was also too heavy for the size of the tail wing, making the Christmas Bullet very hard to control, for the very short time it was in the air, at least.

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The Christmas Bullet was completed in the fall of 1918, but World War I ended before it could be flown. One problem was that the doctor couldn’t find a pilot. One by one they looked it over, tried the controls and walked away shaking their heads. Finally, Dr. Christmas was able to lure a victim hire a pilot from among the ranks of the unemployed Army Air Service pilots returning from the war. Ironically, it was just after Christmas in 1918 when Cuthbert Mills took the Christmas Bullet up for her maiden flight. He got it airborne successfully, but within moments the flimsy wings twisted and peeled from the heavy fuselage and the Bullet fell like a lead projectile, taking Mills to his death. Undaunted, Dr. Christmas hardly broke stride. Even though he had flown the Bullet without telling the Army-as he’d promised- and had destroyed their engine, he had no qualms about going back to them to ask for help getting a propeller for his second Bullet. In March 1919, Dr. Christmas put the second Bullet on display at the New York Air Show, where he had the audacity to advertise it as the ‘safest, easiest controlled plane in the world.’ It was the same airplane that would later destroy a barn and take a second test pilot’s life when it was flown for the first time.

It is at this point that, in a movie, Dr. Christmas (he even sounds like a movie villain!) would have been unmasked as a fraud and duly punished. In reality, he went on to make even grander claims, even going so far as to go before the US Congress to tell them that his Bullets were the fastest, safest and most efficient airplanes on Earth, and that he was being swamped by the aforementioned orders from Europe. In actuality, there were no orders – or Bullets. This didn’t bother Dr. Christmas, who in 1923 impudently billed the US Army $100,000 for his ‘revolutionary’ wing design. For some reason, perhaps just to get rid of him, the Army paid the bill.

Or so he claimed.

 

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Models of the Christmas Bullet proved to be more popular, more numerous and more flightworthy than the real thing was.
Plane of the Week Holiday Special #25 & 26: Christmas Bullet

Plane of the Week #24: Rockwell B-1 Lancer

This week’s plane of the week is the Rockwell B-1 Lancer bomber.

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First off, last week I promised a North American bomber and I am delivering a Rockwell bomber. Why? North American merged with Rockwell Standard in 1967 following the Apollo 1 fire that North American was blamed for. The company became Rockwell International in 1973 and changed the name of its aircraft division to North American Aircraft Operations. The first succesful contracts for the B-1 were awarded to Rockwell International in 1983 and North American was sold to Boeing at the end of the 1980s, along with the B-1. What was left of Rockwell split in 2001 into Rockwell Collins and Rockwell Automations. So the B-1 was known for a time as the Rockwell B-1 and later as the Boeing B-1, but during its time at Rockwell, it was really being built by North American, as that was Rockwell’s only aircraft department. When NA was sold to Boeing, however, it stopped building aircraft of its own, as Boeing was an aircraft company already.

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B-1 with a Dodge Grand Caravan for scale.

The Rockwell  B-1 Lancer is a four-engine supersonic variable-sweep wing, jet-powered heavy strategic bomber used by the United States Air Force. It was first envisioned in the 1960s as a supersonic bomber with Mach 2 speed, and sufficient range and payload to replace the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and have similar capabilities to the XB-70. It was developed into the B-1B, primarily a low-level penetrator with long range and Mach 1.25 speed capability at high altitude. Nicknamed “The Bone,” the B-1B Lancer is a long-range, multi-mission conventional bomber, which has served the United States Air Force since 1985. Originally designed for nuclear capabilities, the B-1 switched to an exclusively conventional combat role in the mid 1990’s. In 1999, during Operation Allied Force, six B-1s flew 2 percent of the strike missions, yet dropped 20 percent of the ordnance. The B-1 has been nearly continuously deployed in combat operations over Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

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Development was delayed multiple times over its history due to changes in the perceived need for manned bombers. The initial B-1A version was developed in the early 1970s, but its production was canceled, and only four prototypes were built. This was one of the main points of Jimmy Carter’s campaign, saying “The B-1 bomber is an example of a proposed system which should not be funded and would be wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars.” That sounds suspiciously similar to what they’re saying about the F-35. They thought we didn’t need the B-1, and look where it is now.

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The need for a new platform once again surfaced in the early 1980s, and the aircraft resurfaced as the B-1B version with the focus on low-level penetration bombing. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan campaigned heavily on the platform that Carter was weak on defense, citing the cancellation of the B-1 program as an example, a theme he continued using into the 1980s. During this time Carter’s defense secretary, Harold Brown, announced the stealth bomber project, apparently implying that this was the reason for the B-1 cancellation. Production went ahead as the B version would be operational before the “Advanced Technology Bomber” (which became the B-2 Spirit), during a period when the B-52 would be increasingly vulnerable. The B-1B entered service in 1986 with the USAF Strategic Air Command as a nuclear bomber.

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After a long and involved history, the B-1 finally became one of the world’s best bombers. It’s not even finished yet. In February 2014, work began on a multi-year upgrade of 62 (out of the 90 remaining) B-1Bs, scheduled to be completed by 2019. The vertical situation display upgrade will replace existing flight instruments with multifunction color displays, a second display will aid threat evasion and targeting, and act as a back-up display. Additional memory capacity is to be installed for the diagnostics database. Procurement and installation of the IBS upgrades is expected to cost $918 million, research and engineering costs are estimated at $391 million. Other additions are to replace the two spinning mass gyroscopic inertial navigation system with ring laser gyroscopic systems and a GPS antenna, replacement of the APQ-164 radar with the Scalable Agile Beam Radar – Global Strike active electronically scanned array, and a new attitude indicator. Fancy.

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Bad to the Bone, as they say.

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A 28th Bomb Wing B-1B Lancer sits on the ramp in the early morning at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Aug. 30, waiting to taxi. The aircraft was taking off to conduct the first test launch of a joint air-to-surface standoff missile. Ellsworth AFB is one of the biggest B-1 bases in America. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Angela Ruiz)

 

Next week: You’ll never guess what aircraft company I’m going to write about.

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Plane of the Week #24: Rockwell B-1 Lancer

Plane of the Week #23: North American T-6 Texan

This week’s plane of the week is the North American T-6 Texan.

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The North American Aviation T-6 Texan is a single-engined advanced trainer aircraft used to train pilots of the United States Army Air Forces, United States Navy, Royal Air Force and other air forces of the British Commonwealth during World War II and into the 1970s. It remains a popular warbird aircraft used for airshow demonstrations and static displays. It has also been used many times to simulate the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero in movies depicting World War II in the Pacific.

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The North American T-6 Texan was known as “the pilot maker” because of its important role in preparing pilots for combat. Derived from the 1935 North American NA-16 prototype, a cantilever low-wing two-seat monoplane, the Texan filled the need for a basic combat trainer during WW II and beyond. The original order of 94 AT-6 Texans differed little from subsequent versions such as the AT-6A which revised the fuel tanks or the AT-6D and AT-6F that strengthened and lightened the frame. North American’s rapid production of the T-6 Texan coincided with the wartime expansion of the United States air war commitment. As of 1940, the required flights hours for combat pilots earning their wings had been cut to just 200 during a shortened training period of seven months. Of those hours, 75 were logged in the AT-6.

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The Texan originated from the North American NA-16 prototype (first flown on April 1, 1935) which, modified as the NA-26, was submitted as an entry for a USAAC “Basic Combat” aircraft competition in March, 1937. The first model went in to production and 180 were supplied to the USAAC as the BC-1 and 400 to the RAF as the Harvard I. The US Navy received 16 modified aircraft, designated the SNJ-1, and a further 61 as the SNJ-2 with a different engine.

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A further 92 BC-1A and three BC-2 aircraft were built before the shift to the “advanced trainer” designation, AT-6, which was equivalent to the BC-1A. The differences between the AT-6 and the BC-1 were new outer wing panels with a swept forward trailing edge, squared-off wingtips and a triangular rudder, producing the definitive Texan appearance. After a change to the rear of the canopy, the AT-6 was designated the Harvard II for RAF/RCAF orders and 1,173 were supplied by purchase or Lend Lease, mostly operating in Canada as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme.

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In Canada it was known as the Yale and in the UK it was named the Harvard. I find it pretty clever of them to name an American plane after American universities.

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The T-6 was used by 55 air forces around the world as a trainer and is now used as a racer, show plane, and civilian trainer and is easily one of the most popular trainers ever built. It was so popular that Beechcraft later made a trainer and named it the T-6 Texan II.

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Next Week: Binge-reading on North American Aviation.

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Plane of the Week #23: North American T-6 Texan

Plane of the Week #22: North American XB-70 Valkyrie

This week’s plane of the week is the North American XB-70 Valkyrie.

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The North American XB-70 Valkyrie is the prototype of the never-built B-70 nuclear-armed, deep-penetration strategic bomber for the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command. North American Aviation designed the Valkyrie bomber as a large, six-engined aircraft capable of reaching Mach 3+ while flying at 70,000 feet. At these speeds, it was expected that the B-70 would be almost immune to interceptor aircraft, the only effective weapon against bomber aircraft at the time. The bomber would spend only a few minutes over a particular radar station, flying out of its range before the controllers could vector their fighters into a suitable location for an interception. Its high speed also made the aircraft difficult to see on the radar displays, and its high altitude flight could not be matched by any Soviet fighter.

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The introduction of the first Soviet surface-to-air missiles in the late 1950s put the near-invulnerability of the XB-70 in doubt. In response, the US Air Force began flying its missions at low level, where the missile radar’s line of sight was limited by local terrain. In this role, known as penetration, the XB-70 offered little more performance over the B-52 it was meant to replace. It was, however, far more expensive and had shorter range. A number of alternate missions were proposed, but these were of limited scope. As the strategic role passed from bombers to intercontinental ballistic missiles during the late 1950s, manned bombers were increasingly unuseful. The USAF eventually gave up fighting for its production, and the B-70 program was canceled in 1961. Development was then turned over to a research program to study the effects of long-duration high-speed flight. As such, two prototype aircraft were built, and designated XB-70A; these aircraft were used for supersonic test-flights during 1964–69. In 1966, one prototype crashed after colliding in mid-air with a smaller jet aircraft; the remaining Valkyrie bomber is in the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. The crashed Valkyrie was not at fault, by the way.

North American XB-70A Valkyrie
North American XB-70A Valkyrie in flight with wingtips in 65 percent (full) drooped position. (U.S. Air Force photo)

North American engineers pored through every aerodynamic study they could find, looking for anything that could be applied to a large, triplesonic bomber. They came across a forgotten NASA research paper about “compression lift.” This paper described how a conical shape underneath the center of a wing would push the air to the side, increasing pressure under the wing section (thereby increasing lift!) with far less drag than simply increasing the size of the wing itself. To illustrate the concept, imagine a cone (like an ice cream cone). Then cut it in half lengthwise, so now you have a half cone that has a flat surface from tip to tail. Now imagine that half cone travelling through the air, flat side up, with the “belly” of the cone on the bottom. As it travels through the air, the “belly” will push the shape upwards. I don’t get it, either. In flight, the XB-70 could lower the outer wing sections either 25 degrees for flying from 300 knots to Mach 1.4, or a severe 65 degrees for speeds from Mach 1.4 to Mach 3+. Measuring just a bit over 20 feet at the trailing edge, these wingtips represent the largest movable aerodynamic device ever used.

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Lowering the wingtips had three distinct effects on the XB-70:
-Total vertical area was increased, allowing shorter vertical stabilizers than would otherwise be needed.
-The reduction in rearward wing area countered the delta wing’s inherent rearward shift of the center of lift as speed increased, keeping drag-inducing trim corrections to a minimum.
-Compression lift was 30 percent more effective because the pressure under the wing was better managed.
-Along with the wingtips, the six J93 engines, bomb bay, and landing gear were all contained in a conical shape designed to enhance shockwave management.

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Overall, the XB-70 has the best lift-to-drag ratio of any manned airplane ever built, being bettered only on the unmanned D-21 drone, an airframe designed to be air-launched, fly at one speed and altitude, and then self-destruct.

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The XB-70 had too many problems throughout its very short operational life too be used in combat or be mass-produced, however. Many flights had had bad hydraulic problems or worse. On its twelfth flight, a piece of the air intake broke off and destroyed engines 3, 4, and 6 and severely damaged the rest. None of the engines were repairable and all had to be replaced.

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Later, on its thirty-seventh flight, the landing gear failed to extend fully and it had to land on a dry lakebed so it could coast to a stop. The weight of the machine forced the landing gear into the correct positions.

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The last straw was when one plane was flying in a photo shoot with an F-104 Starfighter and several other aircraft. The F-104 drifted into the XB-70, which destroyed the smaller plane and severely damaged the Valkyrie. One vertical stabilizer was knocked off, leading to severe and technically complex steering issues that I am not going to even attempt to explain. It proved impossible to fly and one pilot ejected, but the other could not escape.

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This came the end of one of the most complex aircraft ever built. It’s kind of a shame, really, but the research paved the way for several high-speed planes that came after it.

I guess it must have been too far outside the box

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Next week: the best trainer ever built. Guaranteed.

Plane of the Week #22: North American XB-70 Valkyrie