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The need for speed

Written by Sakhal

For many historians, the 1930s constituted the golden age of the aviation, or at least the algid phase known as "interwar period". Everything seemed possible: the long transcontinental flights, the records of altitude, the records of speed that fell one after another both in the American races and in the Schneider Trophy... And, however, the military aviation suffered during the first years of that decade a period of relative stagnation; the fighter pilots, still anchored in the combat techniques from the First World War, did not want to hear about anything different from maneuverability, biplanes and open cockpits. They lived somewhat aside from progress and because of that they had to be the engineers who pushed the aviation to the great jump of speed, this is, the full utilization of the last advances in aerodynamics and engines. From their drawing boards they were perfectly aware that the next generation of fighters would have, perforce, to benefit from the last achievements of the technique: monoplane and aerodynamically cleaner aircraft, with more powerful engines, hence faster.

The Schneider Trophy, which had started in 1913 as a speed test for seaplanes, was reborn after the war and in successive editions it was, excepting two sporadical surprises from the Americans, a personal duel between the British pilots and projectists and their Italian counterparts; more concretely, a duel between Reginald Mitchell and Mario Castoldi, who obviously were two of the best European aeronautical designers. In the course of the competitions, Italy had achieved victory in 1926 with a Macchi designed by Castoldi, but the luck would not accompany him again in the three following occassions in 1927, 1929 and 1931 and the Trophy would pass definitely to British hands after the successive victories of the Supermarine S-5, S-6 and S-6B designed by Mitchell. These were obviously mere sportive results in which a multitude of factors intervened, mainly regarding the performance of engines, which were not related to the design of the very aircraft.

But the Schneider Trophy had reached a very high degree of politicization, and that because of two reasons: firstly, because in each edition did not win only a pilot or a manufacturer, but an entire Air Force and hence an entire country; and secondly, because even if it was not a secret for anyone that those seaplanes flew in extreme conditions, their designs involved a great deal of technical advances whose most direct application could not be other than a future generation of fighter aircraft. And so it was, finally, for Reginald Mitchell developed a lustrum later the Supermarine "Spitfire" as a more or less direct descendant of the S-6B, and Mario Castoldi made three quarters of the same with the Mc 202 "Folgore", which harbored quite many calculations from his former seaplanes. On the other hand, an additional proof of the degree of politicization that had been reached is that when, despite of the British victory of 1929, a budget cut from the laborist government was to leave without funds the preparation of the S-6B, a lady from the British aristocracy, Lady Houston, provided the money from her own patrimony, with the pride of feeling "immerse in the spirit of her ancestors, for whom a British was worth three foreigners and for whom a matter like the Schneider Trophy should have so much importance as to sell the undershirt if needed".

The only problem that involved those fine and beautiful seaplanes, both the British and Italian ones, was that the fabulous power reached by their engines - close to 2000 horsepower in the case of the Rolls-Royce R installed in the S-6B - entailed equally fabulous overheatings. The seaplane by Mitchell - as its counterparts by Castoldi - had the wing and the floaters crowded with radiators, and even so, when in Calshot it won the edition of 1931 and definitive one of the Schneider Trophy (completely alone, since the Italians did not attend because of not having their Macchi ready), during the flight at a speed of 660 kilometers/hour the pilot, Boothman, could not touch the side panels of the cockpit because these, literally, burned. But in that time it was already known that flying fast was to be always exposed to the heating of the engines. Seven years later of the Schneider Trophy being left definitely in Britain, the German engineer Ernst Heinkel directed along with his collaborators Gunter and Hertel the development of the revolutionary fighter Heinkel He 100, with which he wanted to remove the thorn from the election of the Messerschmitt Me Bf 109 as the standard fighter of the Luftwaffe.

Heinkel fervently desired that the next German interceptor bore his name, but he had not lost sight of the fact that the engine Daimler that he had chosen for his new He 100 reached very high temperatures, and that the cooling system by means of putting radiators everywhere that had been put into practice in the racing seaplanes was totally unsuitable for a fighter due to the great vulnerability that implied to expose such large radiator surfaces to an impact from the enemy. Hence he devised a new and labyrinthine method. The water of the refrigeration of the engine, subject to pressure, could be heated to 110 degrees without originating steam. When leaving the engine it returned to its normal pressure originating steam, but this one was separated, so that the water returned to the engine while the steam was directed to the wings where, after being cooled, became water again and returned to the engine by means of pumping. According to Heinkel it was easier to put it into practice than explaining it...

In one of the first tests of the newest and highly attractive Heinkel He 100, the directives of the company wanted to give to General Ernst Udet the privilege of flying it. It was the 6th June 1938. Udet accepted delighted albeit without being able to dissimulate a certain nervousness. As all briefing, engineer Kohler warned him that "due to the new cooling system, there are no indicators of temperature, but just these red lights that light when there is danger; in such case, do not doubt it and land". Moments later, Udet flew off towards the sky in the new Heinkel fighter gaining altitude and getting out of sight. He flew faster and faster, and after the ground control detecting - without he knowing - a speed of 634 kilometers/hour, he landed. He had beaten a speed record in a test flight. Just after alighting from the aircraft, Kohler cried fervently: "Record!". Udet, undeterred, asked: "For what in the hell have you installed these red lights that have been lighted all the time? And where is the champagne?". The He 100 was in most aspects superior to the Me Bf 109, but the decision of the Luftwaffe was already taken and it was irreversible. Only a small series of He 100 was built and it was destined, precisely, to a local utilization as interceptor defense in the Heinkel factory at Marienehe.

The need for speed

The seaplane Supermarine S-6B and the fighter Heinkel He 100.

The turbojet engine arrives into scene

The 1930s was a truly remarkable decade in the history of aeronautics also because it witnessed the fast transition from the biplane to the turbojet. This one precisely was the most practical and revolutionary achievement developed by Germany in the field of aeronautics. As it happened with some other innovations of that time, such as the radar or the devices working with infrared rays, the turbojet engine was being investigated in several nations; the progress of the research would depend in the interest shown by the political authorities, who would authorize and fund the projects or otherwise ignore or cancel them. In Germany it was the always innovative but often misunderstood Heinkel who carried most of the works regarding the development of a functional turbojet engine and the aircraft that should have it installed. To start the tests, Heinkel built the aircraft denominated He 178 with a rather aerodynamic shape, suitable for flying at the high speeds expected from the new propulsion system. This aircraft was tested firstly with a rocket engine, the Walter R1 operating with liquid fuel and with variable thrust ranging from 45 to 500 kilograms.

The test gave a positive result, so the first Heinkel turbojet engine was installed in place of the rocket engine, to effectuate the attempt of the first flight of a turbojet in History. The success of this flight, in August 1939, suppossed a technical revolution and gave to the Germans an edge in this field of investigation. During this flight the He 178 reached a maximum speed of almost 700 kilometers/hour at sea level while cruising speed was about 575 kilometers/hour. But surprisingly, the German authorities showed no interest in this technology, a mistake that would delay its practical utilization during the war, with the terrible consequences that this brought to a Germany harassed by throngs of Allied bombers. Despite official opposition, Heinkel continued his research in the field of turbojets with his own funds, but his work would be generally underestimated during the years of war, and the only turbojet aircraft that his company could put in service during the war was the ominous He 162, aircraft so unsafe as fast, built with despair during the last months of the war with unusually low quality standards that claimed the life of a test pilot.

The need for speed

The Heinkel He 178, first turbojet aircraft that flew in History.

The months just after the war constituted a period in which Great Britain kept for a short time the supremacy in the aeronautical field, equally as it had happened after the GreatWar. At the lead of this supremacy was engine manufacturer Rolls Royce; determined to demonstrate this superiority, the company decided to sponsor their participation in the race for the worldwide absolute flight speed record. At the end of the summer 1945 the company Gloster prepared two aircraft for the competition. The test pilot of the company was then Eric Stanley Greenwood, born in 1908 and former pilot of the Royal Air Force between 1928 and 1933. The reports made by Greenwood noted the fortunate combination of the aircraft Gloster Meteor and the engine Rolls Royce Derwent and therefore the Meteor Mk III was modified to mount a larger engine, the Derwent 5 of 1590 kilograms of thrust. With this engine it was expected to reach a speed of 940 kilometers/hour at sea level. With the elimination of the armament, a special preparation for the surfaces and a certain attention to the atmospheric conditions, it was expected to surpass 965 kilometers/hour. Two Gloster Meteor of similar characteristics, serialized EE454 and EE455, and manned, respectively, by Captain Hugh Wilson - one of the most experienced pilots of turbojets who had trained the members of the 616th Squadron - and Eric Greenwood. The 7th November 1945, flying in a course of three kilometers in Herne Bay, Kent County, Wilson stablished a new speed record when reaching 975.66 kilometers/hour, beating the record of 754.8 kilometers/hour set by Fritz Wendel in 1939 with the piston engined aircraft Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 (whose speed record remained for thirty years unbeaten by another piston engined aircraft). On the other hand, the aircraft manned by Greenwood reached 970 kilometers/hour.

The need for speed

Gloster Meteor Mk III piloted by Eric Stanley Greenwood in Herne Bay the 7th November 1945.

Born in January 1922, Neville Duke served in the fronts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, where he achieved the totality of his 28 combat victories, excepting two. After returning to United Kingdom in September 1944, he was temporarily transferred to the Hawker Aircraft Limited as test pilot for the Tempest. In 1945 he made the course number 4 for test pilots in the Empire School and later he was incorporated to the Royal Air Force High Speed Flight, under command by Captain E. M. Donaldson, who set a new speed record with the Gloster Meteor Mk IV of 990 kilometers/hour in 1946. In the mid 1948 Duke was accepted again as test pilot for the company Hawker to pilot the aircraft Sea Fury and Sea Hawk. In April 1951 he became chief test pilot for Hawker and flew the prototype of the Hawker Hunter serialized as WB 188, in Boscombe Down, the 20th July of that year. For many the Hawker Hunter became a synonym of Neville Duke, whose brilliant interventions in Farnborough made history in a time in which being a test pilot still involved great risk, as demonstrated by the deaths of his friend John Derry and, before, T. S. "Winpey" Wade, former chief test pilot of the Hawker. The 7th September 1953 Neville Duke flew the original prototype fitted with new engines (Rolls-Royce Avon RA7R of 3234 kilograms of thrust with post-combustion), denominated "Hunter Mark 3", from Tangmere to the vicinity of Littlehampton (Sussex) in a route of three kilometers at an average speed of 1171 kilometers/hour, establishing a new worldwide absolute flight speed record. The 19th September he flew with the same aircraft in a closed circuit of 100 kilometers, establishing a new record for this type of circuits with a speed of 1141 kilometers/hour.

The need for speed

Hawker Hunter F Mk 3 piloted by Neville Duke the 7th September 1953.

Categories: Aviation - Engineering - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-06-24

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