On December 17 1903, the bicycle mechanic Orville Wright completed the first successful flight in a heavier-than-air machine. A flight that lasted a mere 12 seconds, reaching an altitude of 10 feet and landing 120 feet from the starting point. The Wright Flyer was made of wood and canvas, powered by a 12 horsepower internal combustion engine and endowed with the first, yet basic, mechanisms for controlling pitch, yaw and roll. Only 66 years later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and another 12 years later the first fully re-usable space transportation system, the Space Shuttle, made its way into orbit.

Even though the means of providing lift and attitude control in the Wright Flyer and the Space Shuttle were nearly identical, the operational conditions could not be more different. The Space Shuttle re-entered the atmosphere at orbital velocity of 8 km/s (28x the speed of sound), which meant that the Shuttle literally collided with the atmosphere, creating a hypersonic shock wave with gas temperatures close to 12,000°C -temperature levels hotter than the surface of the sun. How was such unprecedented progress – from Wright Flyer to Space Shuttle – possible in a mere 78 years? This blog post chronicles this technological evolution by telling the story of five iconic aircraft.

Orville Wright&flyer1909

The Wright brothers were the first to succesfully fly what we now consider a modern airplane, but as the brothers would adamantly confirm, they did not invent the airplane. Rather, the brothers stood on the shoulders of a century-old keen interest in aeronautical research. The story of the modern airplane goes back to about 100 years before the Wright brothers, to a relatively unknown British scientist, philosopher, engineer and member of parliament, Sir George Cayley. Although Leonardo da Vinci had thought up flying machines 300 years prior to this, his inventions have relatively little in common with modern designs. In 1799 Cayley proposed the first three-part concept that, to this day, represent the fundamental operating principles of flying:

  • A fixed wing for creating lift.
  • A separate mechanism using paddles to provide propulsion.
  • And a cruciform tail for horizontal and vertical stability.

Many of the flying enthusiasts of the 18th century based their designs on the biomimicry of birds, combining lift, propulsive and control functions in a single oversized wing contraption that was insufficient at providing lift, forward propulsion, let alone a means of control. During a decade of intensive study of the aerodynamics of birds and fish from 1799-1810, Cayley constructed a series of rotating airfield apparatuses that tested the lift and drag of different airfoil shapes. In 1852, Cayley published his most famous work “Sir George Cayley’s Governable Parachutes”, which detailed the blueprint of a large glider with almost all of the features we take for granted on a modern aircraft. A prototype of this glider was built in 1853 and flown by Cayley’s coachman, accelerating the prototype off the rooftop of Cayley’s house in Yorkshire.

The distinctive characteristic of the Wright brothers was their incessant persistence and never-ending scepticism of the research conducted by scientists of authority. By single-handedly revising the historic textbook data on airfoils and building all of their inventions themselves, they developed into the most experienced aeronautical engineers of their day. Engineering often requires a certain intuitive knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, typically acquired through first-hand experience, and the Wright brothers had developed this knack in abundance. In this sense, they were best-equipped to refine the concepts of their peers and develop them into something that superseded everything that came before.

One of the most potent signals of British defiance in WWII is the Supermarine Spitfire. In the summer of 1940, during the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire presented the last bulwark between tyranny and democracy. Between July and October 1940, 747 Spitfires were built of which 361 were destroyed and 352 were damaged. Just 34 Spitfires that were built during the summer of 1940 made it through the war unscathed. Unsurprisingly, the Spitfire is one of the most famous airplanes of all time and its aerodynamic beauty of elliptical wings and narrow body make it one of the most iconic aircraft ever built.

Ray Flying Legends 2005-1

The Spitfire was designed by the chief engineer of Supermarine, RJ Mitchell. Before WWII Mitchell led the construction of a series of sea-landing planes that won the Schneider Trophy three times in a row in 1927, 1929 and 1931. The Schneider Trophy was the most important aviation competition between WWI and WWII – initially intended to promote technical advances in civil aviation, it quickly morphed into pure speed contest over a triangular course of around 300 km. As competitions so often do, the Schneider Trophy became an impetus for advancing aeroplane technology, particularly in aerodynamics and engine design. In this regard the Schneider Trophy had a direct impact on many of the best fighters of WWII. The low drag profile and liquid-cooled engine which were pioneered during the Schneider Trophy were all features of the Supermarine Spitfire and the Mustang P-51. The winning airplane in 1931 was the Supermarine S6.B, setting a new airspeed record of 655.8 km/h (407.4 mph). The S6.B was powered by the supercharged Rolls-Royce R engine with 1900 bhp, which presented such insurmountable problems with cooling that surface radiators had to be attached to the buoyancy floats used to land on water. In March 1936, Mitchell evolved the S6.B into the Spitfire with a new Rolls Royce Merlin engine. The Spitfire also featured its radical elliptical wing design which promised to minimise lift-induced drag. Theoretically, an infinitely long wing of constant chord and airfoil section produces no induced drag. A rectangular wing of finite length however produces very strong wingtip vortices and as a result almost all modern wings are tapered towards the tips or fitted with wing tip devices. The advantage of an elliptical planform (tapered but with curved leading and trailing edges) over a tapered trapezoidal planform is that the effective angle of attack of the wing can be kept constant along the entire wingspan. Elliptical wings are probably a remnant of the past as they are much more difficult to manufacture and the benefit over a trapezoidal wing is negligible for the long wing spans of commercial jumbo jets. However, the design will forever live on in one of the most iconic fighters of all time, the Supermarine Spitfire.

Captain Chuck Yeager, an American WWII fighter ace, became the first supersonic pilot in 1947 when the chief test pilot for the Bell Corporation refused to fly the rocket-powered Bell X-1 experimental aircraft without any additional danger pay. The X-1 closely resembled a large bullet with short stubby wings for higher structural efficiency and less drag at higher speeds. The X-1 was strapped to the belly of a B-29 bomber and then dropped at 20,000 feet, at which point Yeager fired his rocket motors propelling the aircraft to Mach 0.85 as it climbed to 40,000 feet. Here Yeager fully opened the throttle, pushing the aircraft into a flow regime for which there was no available wind tunnel data, ultimately reaching a new airspeed record of Mach 1.06. Yeager had just achieved something that had eluded Europe’s aircraft engineers through all of WWII.

Bell X-1 46-062 (in flight)

The limit that the European aircraft designer ran into during the air speed competitions prior to WWII was the sound barrier. The problem of flying faster, or in fact approaching the speed of sound, is that shock waves start to form at certain locations over the aircraft fuselage. A shock wave is a thin front (about 10 micrometers thick) in which molecules are squashed together by such a degree that it is energetically favourable to induce a sudden increase in the fluid’s density, temperature and pressure. As an aircraft approaches the speed of sound, small pockets of sonic or supersonic flow develop on the top surface of the wing due to airflow acceleration over the curved upper skin. These supersonic pockets terminate in a shockwave, drastically slowing the airflow and increasing the fluid pressure. Even in the absence of shock waves the airflow runs into an adverse pressure gradient towards the trailing edge of the wing, slowing the airflow and threatening to separate the boundary layer from the wing. This condition drastically increases the induced drag and reduces lift, which in the worst case can lead to aerodynamic stall. In the presence of a shock wave this scenario is exacerbated by the sudden increase in pressure and drop in airflow velocity across the shock wave. For this precise reason, commercial aircraft are limited to speeds of around Mach 0.87-0.88 as any further increase in speed would induce shock waves over the wings, increasing drag and requiring an unproportional amount of additional engine power.

It was precisely this problem that aircraft designers ran into in the 1930’s and 1940’s. To make their airplanes approach the speed of sound they needed incredible amounts of extra power, which the internal combustion engines of the time could not provide. Quite fittingly this seemingly insurmountable speed limit was dubbed the sound barrier. It was not until the advent of refined jet engines after WWII that the sound barrier was broken. However, exceeding the sound barrier does not mean things get any easier. The ratio of upstream to downstream airflow speed and pressure across a shock wave are simple functions of the upstream Mach number (airspeed / local speed of sound). Unfortunately for aircraft designers, these ratios change with the square of the upstream Mach number, which means that the induced drag becomes worse and worse the further the speed of sound is exceeded. This is why the Concorde needed such powerful engines and why its fuel costs were so exorbitant.

The North American X-15 rocket plane was one of NASA’s most daring experimental aircraft intended to test flight conditions at hypersonic speeds (Mach 5+) at the edge of space. Three X-15s made 199 flights from 1960-1968 and the data collected and knowledge gained directly impacted the design of the Space Shuttle. Initially designed for speeds up to Mach 6 and altitudes up to 250,000 feet, the X-15 ultimately reached a top speed of Mach 6.72 (more than one mile a second) and a maximum altitude of 354,200 feet (beyond the official demarcation line of space). As of this writing, the X-15 still holds the world record for the highest speed recorded by a manned aircraft. Given the awesome power required to overcome the induced drag of flying at these velocities, it is no surprise that the X-15 was not powered by a traditional turbojet engine but rather a full-fledged liquid-propellant rocket engine, gulping down 2,000 pounds of ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen every 10 seconds.

North American X-15

The X-15 was dropped from a converted B-52 bomber and then made its way on one of two different experimental flight profiles. High-speed flights were conducted at an altitude of a typical commercial jetliner (below 100,000 feet) using conventional aerodynamic control surfaces. For high-altitude flights the X-15 initiated a steep climb at full throttle, followed by engine shut-down once the aircraft left Earth’s atmosphere. What followed was a ballistic coast, carrying the aircraft up to the peak of an arc and then plummeting back to Earth. Beyond Earth’s atmosphere the aerodynamic control surfaces of the X-15 were obviously useless, and so the X-15 relied on small rocket thrusters for control.

The hypersonic speeds beyond the conventional sound barrier discussed previously created a new problem for the X-15. In any medium, sound is transmitted by vibrations of the medium’s molecules. As an aircraft slices through the air, it disturbs the molecules around it which ensues in a pressure wave as molecules bump into adjacent molecules, sequentially passing on the disturbance. Flying faster than the speed of sound means that the aircraft is moving faster than this pressure wave. Put another way, the air molecules are transmitting the information of the disturbance created by the aircraft via a pressure wave that travels at the speed of sound. While the aircraft is creating new disturbances further upstream, Nature can’t keep up with the aircraft. At hypersonic speeds the aircraft is literally smashing into the surrounding stationary air molecules, and the ensuing compression of the air around the aircraft skin leads to fluid temperatures that are above the melting point of steel. Hence, one of the major challenges of the X-15 was guaranteeing structural integrity at these incredibly high temperatures. As a result, the X-15 was constructed from Inconel X, a high-temperature nickel alloy, which is also used in the very hot turbine stages of a jet-engine.

The wedge tail visible at the back of the aircraft was also specifically required to guarantee attitude stability of the aircraft at hypersonic speeds. At lower speeds this thick wedge created considerable amounts of drag, in fact as much as some individual fighter aircraft alone. The area of the tail wedge was around 60% of the entire wing area and additional side panels could be extended out to further increase the overall surface area.

12 April 1981 marked a new era in manned spaceflight: Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off for the first time from Cape Canaveral. The Shuttle capped an incredible fruitful period in aerospace engineering development. The ground work laid by the original Wright flyer, the Spitfire, the X-1 and the X-15 is all part of the technological arc that led to the Shuttle. The fundamentals didn’t change but their orders of magnitude did.

“Like bolting a butterfly onto a bullet” — Story Musgrave, Columbia astronaut, 1996

Story Musgrave’s description of the Space Shuttle is not far off the mark. On the launch pad the Shuttle sat on three solid-rocket boosters producing 37 million horsepower, accelerating the Shuttle beyond the speed of sound in about 30 seconds. Eight minutes and 500,000 gallons of fuel later the Shuttle was travelling at 17,500 mph at the edge of space. The Space Shuttle was not only powerful but possessed a grace that the Wright brothers would have appreciated. After smashing through the atmosphere upon reentry at Mach 28 (8 km/s) the piloting astronaut had to slow the Shuttle down to 200 mph via a series of gliding twists and turns, using the surrounding air as an aerodynamic break.

Shuttle profiles

The ultimate mission of the Shuttle was to serve as a cost-effective means of travelling to space for professional astronauts and civilians. That vision never came to fruition due to the high maintenance costs between flights, and partly due the Challenger and Columbia disasters that shattered all hopes that space travel would become routine.

Perhaps the Space Shuttle is one of humanities greatest inventions because it reminds us that for all its power, grace and genius it is still the brainchild of fallible men.

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