19 December 2011

The Bell L-39 Swept-Wing Demonstrator

The Bell L-39 making a simulated carrier approach.
Following the end of the Second World War, captured German aerodynamic research had indicated the high-speed benefits of swept wings and many designs under development in the mid to late 1940s were revised to incorporate swept wings- two such examples being the North American F-86 Sabre and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. While the USAF might have been enthusiastic about the benefits of swept wings, the US Navy still had its reservations- the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), the Navy organization tasked with the development and support of naval aircraft, had concerns about the low-speed handling characteristics of swept wings as it was this particular flight regime that was critical in flight operations aboard aircraft carriers. While there was no questioning the high-speed benefits, the Navy didn't have the luxury of long runways to land at high speeds. To determine the scope of the problem, BuAer solicited bids from industry for a swept-wing flying demonstrator to explore the low-speed handling qualities of swept wings. Grumman tendered two proposals, one based on a modified F4F Wildcat as well as an all new aircraft that would have allowed wings of differing sweep to attached to the fuselage. Bell submitted a modification of its P-63 Kingcobra which won the contract as it offered lower development costs using two P-63 aircraft. The aircraft would be designated L-39. In those days, the Navy designated its research aircraft with a letter denoting the manufacturer followed by the manufacturer's model number- as exemplified by the more well-known D-558 Skystreak and later Skyrocket- "D" for Douglas, Model 558. In the case of the L-39, "L" was Bell Aircraft's letter designation and the swept wing demonstrator had the company designation Model 39. The design had really only a tangential relationship to the P-39 Airacobra (more on this in a bit). 

The wings were basically P-63 Kingcobra outer wing panels that were modified to be swept to 35 degrees and attached to an unswept center stub section. This was done for aerodynamic balance purposes. The wings were further modified with slats which could be positioned before flight either open or closed. Because of the wing modifications, the landing gear was non-retractable, but since BuAer was more interested in low speed landing, this was of no consequence. Two L-39s were built, differing only in the size of the slats.

The swept outer panels attached to an unswept center section.
The first L-39 was ready to fly only 10 weeks after the go-ahead from the Navy and made its first flight on 23 April 1946. The initial set of flight tests showed some handling issues that were easily resolved with further modification to the first aircraft- namely a fuselage extension aft of the wing to increase the moment arm of the tailplane to provide more pitch authority, a ventral fin for stability, and to shift the center of gravity rearward more, the original four-bladed P-63 propeller was replaced with a lighter three-bladed unit from a P-39 Airacobra (and thus the only real link between the P-39 and the L-39). The second L-39 demonstrator was completed with the additional modifications and joined the flight test program.

It was quickly determined that the swept wing with the slats closed possessed entirely unacceptable stall characteristics- namely it was abrupt and caused the aircraft to roll to one side. However, if the wing were slatted, then the stall characteristics become acceptable. Simulated carrier approaches and landings were made by both BuAer test pilots and even Corky Meyer, Grumman's chief test pilot (as Grumman was in the process of designing swept wing aircraft for the Navy). Handling and stall characteristics in the low speed regime around the carrier were quickly determined to not be an issue as long as the swept wing were slatted and the L-39 flight test program concluded in August 1946.

Close up of the L-39's wing slats.
One issue that did come up during the L-39 test program was that swept wings needed a responsive power source in the carrier landing pattern. On aircraft there is a relationship between power required for flight and airspeed. As the airspeed decreases, the power needed also decreases, but it then reaches a point due to drag that the power needed starts to go up even as the airspeed decreases. This is called the "back side" of the curve. In carrier aircraft, they are flown on this backside because the approach to the deck must be at as low as a speed is possible. On a propeller-driven aircraft, power can be immediately applied to halt the aircraft from settling in the approach and striking the ramp. But swept wings had a steeper "back side" and early jet engines took time to spool up. And it would be jet engine development that would later dog the Navy's aircraft programs in the 1950s. But more on that in a later post!

Source: U.S. Naval Air Superiority- Development of Shipborne Jet Fighters 1943-1962 by Tommy H. Thompson. Specialty Press, 2008, p69-73.

16 December 2011

The Massive Curtiss XP-71 Fighter

Early windtunnel model of the XP-71 with its wider twin-seat cockpit.
Before the entry of the United States into the Second World War, news stories were splashing headlines about the massed bomber attacks the Luftwaffe was conducting against British cities during the Blitz and in the run up to 1941, a concern about the potential of bomber attacks on the United States took root (despite the obvious shortcomings of any enemy bomber attack on US targets protected on each side by large oceans). A number of designs and studies were undertaken to evaluate the problem of intercepting enemy bombers and one of these resulted in a design specification for a large high-altitude fighter to carry a heavy cannon armament to attack bomber formations from ranges that would place it beyond a bomber's defensive guns. In April 1941, the Curtiss Aeroplane Company submitted six proposals with two, more refined, proposals the following November. One configuration met the proscribed needs of the military for a bomber destroyer and this aircraft was assigned the designation XP-71 with a $3.2 million contract for two prototypes which was signed on 28 October 1941. 

The Curtiss design had the internal company designation CW-29 and had it been built, it would have been the largest fighter aircraft ever developed in the United States- with a wingspan of 82.3 feet, a gross weight of 39,950 lbs and a fuel load up to 1,940 gallons, it was to be able to climb to 25,000 feet in just 12.5 minutes with a cruising speed of 428 mph. With an operating ceiling of 40,000 feet and a range of 3,000 miles, the XP-71 would attack enemy bomber formations well before they reached their targets. A heavy armament of two 37mm cannons with 60 rounds each and a 75mm cannon with 20 rounds was located in the nose and equipped with automatic feed systems so the aircraft only needed a minimal crew of just two. Two large Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major 28-cylinder radial engines drove a total of nearly 7,000 horsepower to wing-mounted contra-rotating pusher props with a total of eight blades each and a diameter of 13.5 feet. General Electric turbosuperchargers would give the XP-71 the necessary high altitude performance along with a pressurized cockpit.
To put the massive size of the XP-71 into context, let's compare it with one of the larger production American fighters of the war, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. The XP-71 would have twice the wingspan, four times the gross weight, nearly four times the combat range, and nearly three times the engine horsepower of the Thunderbolt. In fact, the XP-71 had it been built would have been larger, heavier, faster, and longer ranged than even a late-model North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. 

This schematic hints at the immense complexity of the XP-71.
The mockup was inspected at Curtiss' St. Louis facility on 16 November 1942, at which time the design was revised from having two crew to just a single pilot. The original proposal had the two pilots sitting side-by-side. Following the mockup review, detailed design work took place well into 1943, by which time it was becoming clear to both the US Army Air Forces and Curtiss that the XP-71 might well be the most complex aircraft yet built. During ground firing trials of the nose cannon installation in February 1943, the nose structure failed in spectacular fashion, necessitating a redesign. Curtiss also had problems finding a suitable rangefinder for the fire control system and eventually settled on a radio-based model. Cooling of the R-4360 engines in the wing nacelles also required considerable attention with an annular intake with a gearbox-driven cooling fan being developed to insure adequate cooling airflow to the massive radial engines.

By the latter half of 1943 it was becoming apparent that the XP-71 was a plane without a mission as the strategic bombing campaign of Germany got underway. The likelihood of German bomber formations, let alone Japanese bomber formations, approaching US cities was almost nil. The USAAF considered re-roling the XP-71 as a photorecon aircraft, but no solid commitments were forthcoming. On 23 October 1943, the XP-71 program was terminated after the expenditure of $2.3 million with the first flight planned for June 1944. Curtiss attempted to salvage the program by pitching the XP-71 as an antishipping aircraft with its heavy nose cannons, but this role was already being filled by the proven B-25 Mitchell in the Pacific and Curtiss's engineering resources were needed on other projects.

Source: U.S. Experimental and Prototype Aircraft Projects: Fighters 1939-1945 by Bill Norton. Specialty Press, 2008, p138-139. Photos: National Museum of the United States Air Force.

13 December 2011

Violet Club: Quite Possibly the Worst Nuclear Bomb Ever Fielded

The warhead, or physics package, of the Violet Club bomb
When taking a look at the development of British nuclear weapons following the Second World War, it has to be viewed in the context of a piece of legislation in the United States that was passed in 1946- the McMahon Act or the Atomic Energy Act. Sponsored by Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut who chaired the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy, this legislation is better known for its creation of the Atomic Energy Commission and the placement of nuclear weapons development and nuclear applications under civilian rather than military control. However, one consequence of the McMahon Act was the stipulation that nuclear weapons development be restricted from US allies- this affect the United Kingdom and Canada who had provided scientists and support to the wartime Manhattan Project. As a result of being shut out of American nuclear weapons development, the British set about to create their own air-dropped weapon which would be fielded in 1953 at RAF Witttering- though somewhat amusingly the first aircraft that could carry the bomb, designated Blue Danube, the Vickers Valiant, didn't become operational until a year later. The purpose of this wasn't just a message to the Soviets, but also to the United States that Britain was more than capable of fielding its own nuclear deterrent despite the McMahon Act. 

On 1 November 1952 the United States detonated its first fusion bomb (H-bomb) in the Ivy Mike test at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific. Given that the British were still shut out of US nuclear development by the McMahon Act, despite the fact that the Blue Danube fission bomb (A-bomb) was still a year out from being operational, strategic imperatives meant that Britain had to develop it's own H-bomb and the program was launched in 1954. In the UK, many military systems were assigned code names under the Ministry of Supply's "rainbow codes"- hence, "Blue Danube". In the development of an H-bomb, the casing had its own code name and the actual warhead, called the physics package, had another code name. The casing of the H-bomb was based on the Blue Danube casing and was designated Violet Club while the physics package was designated Green Grass. 

But before the code names had been settled upon, the British H-bomb had a different name- "Interim Megaton Weapon"- implying that it was a high-yield weapon but not a true thermonuclear or H-bomb/fusion weapon. And this is really at the heart of the history of the Violet Club and its historical legacy. First, it indicates that Violet Club was intended to be a temporary weapon and secondly, it wasn't a fusion bomb as was commonly believed by *both* the Soviet Union and the United States. 

The warhead or physics package of the bomb was based on earlier warhead designs that were named Orange Herald and Green Bamboo. Orange Herald was a lighter version of Green Bamboo and the designs were projected to be the new fusion warheads for the Royal Air Force's V-force, the Blue Steel stand-off missile, and the planned Blue Streak intermediate-range ballistic missile. Testing of Orange Herald showed that it had failed to boost the fission reaction to create a fusion reaction. The failure of the warhead designs left the British scrambling for a high-yield weapon and this became the Green Grass warhead of the Interim Megaton Weapon that was based on design elements of the earlier Green Bamboo and Orange Herald designs. As was the case in the United States, interservice rivalries in Great Britain meant that the Army wanted highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear landmines in Europe and the Royal Navy wanted HEU for the reactors for its planned nuclear-powered submarine fleet. The Royal Air Force was of the feeling that the HEU that had so far been produced in British reactors had to be used or it would be lost to rival services, so that was one of several motivations to rush the Interim Megaton Weapon into service as it would use a significant amount of HEU.

Schematic of the Green Grass warhead showing how the ball bearings were used.
It was the design of the Green Grass warhead that went into the Violet Club that made it for all practical purposes a useless weapon. A hollow sphere of HEU was surrounded by a system of 72 explosive lenses that compressed the HEU to critical mass and detonation. But here was the problem. In the Green Grass warhead, the mass of HEU was in *excess* of the critical mass once compressed by the explosive lenses. That meant if the warhead were crushed or damaged during handling, it could partially detonate. American designs avoided this by having an HEU core that was inserted into the physics package usually by the bombardier once the bomber was in flight, thereby "arming" the bomb once the core was inserted. Without the core inserted, the HEU mass in the American designs was below the critical mass. The solution by British designers was to fill the center of the HEU sphere with 20,000 steel ball bearings to prevent the sphere from being crushed and reaching critical mass. To arm the bomb, a plastic plug was removed from the bottom of the warhead (accessible via a hatch on the underside of the Violet Club casing) that allowed the bearings to flow out, thereby arming the bomb. 

While it may sound like a creative solution, there were several issues: 
  • The weight of the ball-bearings increased the bomb's weight to 11,250 lbs which was greater than the capacity of not only the bomb release mechanisms of the V-bombers but also the ground-transport equipment of the bomb. 
  • The outflow of bearings took at least half an hour under ideal conditions- in cold weather, the bearings could freeze together, making arming the weapon near-impossible. 
  • Once the bomb was armed by allowing the ball-bearings to flow out of the center of the warhead, there was on way of making the weapon safe again. In fact, engine running was prohibited even with Violet Club "safed" as it was feared vibration would cause the plastic plug to fall out and inadvertantly arm the weapon. 
  • Because the bomb was armed irreversibly, airborne alerts were impossible because take off and landing were too hazardous to attempt with an armed Violet Club. 
  • Dispersal of the V-force to outlying fields was impossible as the bomb couldn't be flown to the dispersal airfield and the bomb transport equipment couldn't handle the Violet Club when it had its ball-bearings in place. 
The Blue Danube- the Violet Club looked similar externally.
While the Air Staff of the RAF ordered twelve Violet Club bombs, only five were made and as British author Chris Gibson put it in his book Vulcan's Hammer "From the RAF's point of view, that was five too many." With such an unwieldly weapon, why was it even fielded? First of all, remember that the British were classifying the Violet Club as megaton-class weapon by calling it the Interim Megaton Weapon. It definitely wasn't a megaton weapon, perhaps more 400 kilotons at best, but certainly the Operation Grapple tests at Christmas Island in 1957 did indicate to the Americans the British were succeeding at fielding their own H-bombs- even if those test detonations failed to created the desired thermonuclear reaction. So who was the target of the Violet Club? While serving notice to the Soviet Union that Britain was still a force to be reckoned with, it seems that perhaps the Americans were the target, so to speak- with a weapon in their inventory called Interim Megaton Weapon implying that newer designs forthcoming and the Grapple series of tests in 1957 making a good show of things despite failing to work as planned, in 1958 the United States repealed the McMahon Act and resumed full nuclear cooperation with the United Kingdom. The Green Grass warhead used in Violet Club would be the last all-British nuclear weapon as a new Mutual Defense Agreement signed as part of the repeal of the McMahon Act meant British designers now had access to more advanced and compact American designs. In fact, the successor to the much-despised Violet Club, the Yellow Sun Mk.2, used an Anglicized American Mk.28 thermonuclear warhead. But no other fission weapon ever fielded by any other nation approached the explosive yield of the Violet Club.
Source: Vulcan's Hammer: V-Force Projects and Weapons Since 1945 by Chris Gibson. Hikoki Publications, 2011, p47-51. http://www.nuclear-weapons.info/vw.htm, by Brian Burnell.

10 December 2011

How the US Coast Guard Ended up with the Dassault Falcon

HU-25 Guardian on short final into KDAL.
When the United States Coast Guard announced in January 1977 that a maritime patrol version of the Dassault Falcon 20 business jet was selected to replace the Grumman HU-16 Albatross and Convair HC-131As in the medium-range search and rescue role, it was the first time in the Coast Guard's 65-year history at that point that it had selected a non-American aircraft for its purposes. The road that led up to this landbreaking decision actually began in 1971 when the Coast Guard issued it's Medium Range Surveillance (MRS) requirement. At the time, the Coast Guard had selected what would have been a specially-developed version of the North American Rockwell Sabreliner 75 that would have been powered by Avco Lycoming ALF-502 turbofan engines- at the time, production standard Sabreliner 75s were powered by General Electric CF700 engines. However, the USCG came under intense criticism for the first incarnation of the MRS contract as it had not held an open competition for other aircraft manufacturers to submit proposals. Yielding to Congressional pressure, the Coast Guard canceled the contract with North American Rockwell and re-opened the MRS requirement as an open competition in 1975. 

The new MRS requirements stipulated that the aircraft be turbofan-powered to allow a high dash speed and high-altitude performance to fly over weather when enroute to a search area. The cabin had to be at least 600 cubic feet to allow all the equipment needed for fly several missions without having to return to base for a changeout of mission-specific equipment. Basic mission parameters were set at a 700 nm loiter at 2,000 feet at a distance of 150 nm from the base. A speed of at least 350 knots was required during the transit to and from search areas and the aircraft had to be capable of an airspeed of no more than 220 knots at 2,000 feet when in the search area. In March 1976, the USCG had received several submissions for consideration: 
  • North American Rockwell submitted it's previous proposed Sabreliner 75 development;
  • Gulfstream submitted two versions of the GII business jet, one powered by Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans and one powered by GE CF34 turbofans;
  • A highly unconventional submission came from ICX Aviation which had plans to license build the Yakovlev Yak-40 jetliner in Youngstown, Ohio. Their proposal was based on a Yak-40 powered by three Garrett AiResearch TFE731 turbofans;
  • Lockheed proposed a version of the Jetstar powered by two GE CF34 engines;
  • VFW-Fokker submitted two versions of the VFW 614 jetliner, one with Bendix cockpit avionics and one with Collins cockpit avionics- both versions would have used GE CF34 engines;
  • And finally Dassault through the Falcon Jet Corporation (a joint venture between Dassault and Pan Am to market the Falcon 20 in the United States) submitted a version powered by Garrett ATF3 engines called the Falcon HX-XX. 
The HU-25s are being replaced and serve at only 3 air stations.
By the fall of 1976, the field of submissions had been narrowed down to just three- Lockheed's CF34-powered Jetstar, VFW-Fokker's VFW 614 jetliner, and the Falcon HX-XX. Contractor bids were submitted to the Coast Guard on 28 October 1976 based on a 41-aircraft purchase and the Falcon HX-XX came out the cheapest at $4.9 million per aircraft. The VFW 614 was nearly 20% higher in unit price to the Falcon proposal and the Lockheed Jetstar proposal was a surprising 25% higher than the Falcon, coming in as the most expensive option. At the time, the Buy American Act of 1933 was applied to the bids which meant that the VFW-Fokker proposal was increased by an additional 12% in accordance with provisions of the act as it lacked significant American parts. The Falcon HX-XX, however, was exempted from this provision of the Buy American Act as the Falcon Jet Corporation in their proposal would import green airframes from Dassault and finish them out in the United States with American parts to equal 68.1% of the aircraft's value being sourced from US contractors- by the provisions of the law at the time, 50% was considered the minimum to qualify as a domestic product. Knowing the political winds in Washington when it came to a "foreign" aircraft purchase, the Falcon Jet Corporation even showed how over a 10 year service lift the value of American parts in the HX-XX increased to nearly 75%.

As a result, on 5 January 1977, Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman, Jr, announced that the Falcon HX-XX was the winning submission and the aircraft would be designated the HU-25 Guardian in Coast Guard service. It set a precedent for the Coast Guard and two years later the service selected the Aerospatiale (today American Eurocopter) Dauphin helicopter to become the HH-65 Dolphin in the short-range recovery role. History repeated itself again several years ago when the EADS/CASA CN235MP was selected to replace the HU-25 Guardian in the medium range surveillance role- designated HC-144 Ocean Sentry, the first ones were delivered to the USCG in 2006.

Source: Air International, Volume 20, Number 4. "Uncle Sam's Gallic Guardian", p173-179. Photos: JPSantiago, United States Coast Guard