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Post Flying Wide with the Bristol Brabazon
Created by John Eipper on 02/04/19 4:00 AM

Previous posts in this discussion:


Flying Wide with the Bristol Brabazon (John Heelan, UK, 02/04/19 4:00 am)

The topic of runway width (Gary Moore 2 February) reminded me of the runway built at BAE Filton to cope with the gigantic Brabazon aircraft that made 747 look like toys.

Working in the industry at the time, I often hopped a company flight to Filton and thought that the light plane might have been able to land across the very wide runway.

The same runway was used to test a Concorde engine mounted underneath a Vulcan bomber. It is remembered that at the end of one test flight, the pilot was running out of runway, switched the Concorde engine to reheat and took off in about 200 yards, with the engine thrust blowing down a lego-built gas station at the end of the runway.

As for 747s, I witnessed the first take-off from LHR Runway 27 R on a very wet day. The machine appeared out of the gloom looking like a whale surfacing through the waves. A Brit behind me remarked laconically, "The pilot flightdeck is probably saying, 'OK we got it up to 500ft, what say we go for 1000ft?'" On the other hand I was about to travel on an antiquated 707 across the pond whose wingtips flapped in a 9ft arc on take-off.

JE comments:  The behemoth Bristol Brabazon would have been the zenith of pre-jet aviation.  Only one prototype was built in 1949, with eight massive piston engines, two passenger levels, a lounge or two, and sleeping berths.  And unlike Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose, the Brabazon actually flew!  Sadly, the lone example was scrapped in 1953.

The BBC did a documentary:


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  • Flying with the Spruce Goose (David Duggan, USA 02/05/19 9:33 AM)
    The Spruce Goose flew one time.

    JE comments: David Duggan's "Jesus wept" of a post (in the brevity sense) is in response to my comment on the Hughes H-4 Hercules, lovingly known as the Spruce Goose.  I was mistaken to say it never flew.  Here's the video of its 26-second journey, juxtaposed against a modern rendition starring Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator, 2004):


    Fun fact:  The Goose was made primarily of birch.  Why wasn't it nicknamed the Birch Bird?

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  • Bristol Brabazon, 747s, and the Antonov An-225 (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 02/05/19 10:15 AM)
    John Heelan (4 February) described the "gigantic Brabazon aircraft that made 747 look like toys."

    Well, for the record, the very cool Brabazon had about the same wingspan as a 747, but only about 1/3 the mass (130 tonnes MTOW vs 447 tonnes for the largest models of the 747). So I can't see how it makes 747s look like toys.

    I wouldn't say that even the behemoth Soviet Antonov 225, the heaviest aircraft ever built at 640 tonnes MTOW, makes the 747 "look like a toy"--the 747 is a pretty big plane.

    JE comments: Is there anything cooler than really huge planes? I'm tickled by this discussion. The An-225, like the Brabazon and the Spruce Goose, is a one-off. Wikipedia tells us that a second copy is "60-70% complete" and will be finished for a Chinese purchaser by the end of the year.

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    • More Planes and Nations: TU 144 and Concorde (John Heelan, UK 02/07/19 2:44 PM)

      Before we get enmired in a nationalist "Love me: Love my plane" discussion, we should remember the tragic crash of the TU144 "Concordski" at the Paris Air Show in 1973. It was to challenge the Anglo-French Concorde for the transatlantic market.

      As a schoolboy, I remember watching Brabazon as it flew overhead. I also nearly had a chance to fly on Concorde after being marooned in NYC for a couple of days owing to an engine failure on a BA 747.  What was more scary was being accompanied on the final landing by what seemed all of JFK's emergency vehicles with their sirens and blue and twos going. I missed out on Concorde because our company at that time demanded we all flew "Cattle Class": Business Class and up got their trip home on Concorde. So near and yet so far.

      Concorde used to fly over our village at 11am most mornings before it revved up its Olympus engines and entered the supersonic phase of its transatlantic journey.

      JE comments:  Big (or in this case, extremely fast) planes are cool, but WAISers already know what I think.  A question:  Did anyone in WAISworld fly on the Concorde?

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      • Moffett Field Naval Air Station, California (Edward Jajko, USA 02/08/19 3:44 AM)

        Our house is more or less under the approach paths to what used to be Naval Air Station Moffett Field.

        In the early years of our residence here, Lockheed P-3 Orion airplanes used to fly overhead regularly toward Moffett Field, returning from missions tracking Soviet submarines as far out as the Indian Ocean. Those days are over, but fighter jets occasionally streak overhead or close by and a national guard C-130 regularly flies around.

        I was at Moffett some years ago when a B-17 and B-24 made an annual visit. I spoke with an aged man who startled me when he said that he had flown in the 8th Air Force in the Ploesti raid. He knew he was lucky; half the planes were lost. And by way of contrast, there was what I assume to have been an AN-124 parked down the tarmac, an immense airplane, and at one point the crew came over to inspect the 70-year old relics.

        On one of our first mornings in this house, I was awakened by a horrible screaming and roaring noise that seemed to come from everywhere. I got out of bed and rushed to the window, in time to see the belly of a Lockheed C-5 just a few hundred feet overhead.

        Forty or so years ago, my wife, kids, and I were flying a puddle-jumper, probably Allegheny, from Connecticut to somewhere in the Midwest. As we began to land in, I think, Columbus, Ohio, the airplane, almost on the ground, suddenly nosed up and accelerated. We passengers all said "oh?" and I'm sure others joined me in acts of contrition. Then the pilot came on the loudspeaker to say that there seemed to be a problem with the landing gear and he was sending the first officer back to take care of it. Within minutes, a man in pilot's uniform came walking toward the rear of the plane--holding an ordinary screwdriver.

        JE comments:  But was it standard slot-head or Phillips screwdriver?  A Wikipedia fun-fact:  the "Phillips head" screw was named for Henry Phillips in the 1930s and first used on the 1936 Cadillac.  The patent actually belongs to inventor John P. Thompson, who sold the design to Phillips.  Think of what nearly was:  the "Thompson head."  Ol' Henry probably never expected he'd gain immortality with such a tiny innovation.

        But I've digressed.  Ed, didn't Google take ownership of Moffett Field?  If so, that would be most appropriate for the culture of Silicon Valley.  Here's a 2015 report from your local paper, the San José Mercury News:


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        • Living in Fear of the Soviet Bomb (John Heelan, UK 02/09/19 9:54 AM)
          Ed Jajko (8 February) reminded me of when we lived in a peaceful country hamlet--one road and not many houses.

          Unfortunately the peace was regularly shattered by either by helicopters skimming our rooftops flying their nightly milk run carrying radioactive material from Aldermaston Research station back to Harwell, or by C130s delivering Cruise Missiles to Greenham Common USAF airbase that also acted as a diversion runway for London Heathrow.

          Given given that triangle of strategic nuclear facilities within line of sight (plus Burghfield factory where they assembled the weapons), it was not surprising that it was alleged that the USSR was targeting a 40-megaton first strike at it. We comforted ourselves with the thought that (worst case) we might see only the flash--however from time to time during thunderstorms I did tale a peek westwards to see if London had grown a mushroom cloud.

          JE comments: A frightening way to spend your days! I've always been fortunate to live in backwaters that are also strategically insignificant.  The joke in Adrian is that if other places get nuked, it will take 10 or 20 years before the trend arrives here.

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      • I Flew on the Concorde; from Robert Schenck (John Eipper, USA 02/08/19 10:19 AM)

        Robert R. Schenck, MD (Chicago) writes:

        My wife and I had the privilege of flying on the Concorde
        prior to its end. The 3 + hours over the Atlantic to Paris was
        equaled by taking the QE II for the return trip to New York.
        With the latter trip taking 5 days, our natural body-clock
        of 25 hours matched so well, there was no jet lag.

        Unfortunately the limited passenger/cabin capacity
        did not equate to the operating costs, and eventually,
        government subsidies were such an economic drain that
        the Concorde became impractical. What a loss!

        JE comments:  I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Schenck, a world-renowned hand surgeon, last summer at Wrigley Field, Chicago.  Bob, WAISer David Duggan, and I cheered the Cubs to victory in a game that was blessed with a bit of rain.  One of the best parts of the game was chatting with Bob, who has traveled extensively and lived for a time in Ethiopia.  Obviously I invited him to participate in WAIS.  Great to have you with us, Bob!

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      • What Happened to the American SST? (Michael Sullivan, USA 02/09/19 3:42 AM)
        The recent WAIS discussions of the Concorde brought back memories. I was writing a thesis in 1971 on the American SST, which had been selected to be the Boeing version, when it was cancelled because Congress cut off the funding!

        Attached is the history of American involvement in development of an SST.


        JE comments:  Just yesterday I was driving and thinking of supersonic transport.  (No connection between the two; I was driving slowly.)  My thought:  Concorde and TU 144 aside, what happened to the American SST? 

        General Sullivan to the rescue!  Answer:  technical challenges, but mostly economics, killed the SST.  At the article above we learn that British Airways ran its Concorde program at a profit, while Air France could not.

        Michael, the Boeing SST was to have variable-sweep (moveable) wings.  This sounds enormously complex.  Are there any military aircraft with such wings?

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        • Variable-Sweep Wings on Military Aircraft (Brian Blodgett, USA 02/10/19 4:35 AM)
          In response to John E's question to Michael Sullivan, there are aircraft with variable-sweep wings. As the article mentioned, variable-sweep wings were an "expensive characteristic of many high-performance aircraft designs of the 1960s" (Daverede, 2017).

          Variable-sweep wings, also known as swing wings, are wings that can be swept back (and returned to the original position as well) during flight. This shifting of the wings is more suitable for high speeds is actually most beneficial to those that will fly at high and low speeds, i.e. mainly military aircraft. Additionally the addition of these wings allows aircraft to carry more fuel or payload and it improves takeoffs and landings. The downfall of the sweep-wing is the penalty is that while it can carry more fuel or payload, its configuration also is heavier than conventional-winged aircrafts and is complex in design and therefore maintenance.

          As Daverede mentioned, it was in aircraft designs of the 1960s but was actually introduced in 1931 with the Westland-Hill Pterodactyl IV that was tailless and had wings that could sweep at a very small angle during flight. The Messerschmitt Me P.1101 had a design that would allow the angle to be changed on the ground, but not during flight. With World War II ending in Europe before the first light of the P.1101, the US took it back to America for study and the US late developed the Bell X-5 that could sweep its wings during flight, unlike the P.1101. Barnes Wallis (who had studied the Wild Goose of an earlier discussion) filed for a US Patent for "high-speed aircraft wing and tail surfaces having variable sweepback" on March 7, 1950 and was awarded Patent Number 2,744,698 on May 8, 1956.

          While Wallis was awaiting his patent, the US tried the variable-sweep wing on the Grumman F10F Jaguar in 1952 but like the P.1101, it never entered service as it had poor flying characteristics and "rather vicious spin tendencies." Meanwhile, the Soviets were also developing sweep-wing aircraft and found they could adapt it from the swept-wing SU-7 and created the Su-17 (foreign variants are the Su-20 and Su-22). Other Soviet aircraft, such as the MiG-23, the MiG-27, the Su-24, the Tu-22M, and the TU-160 all had variable-sweep wings. As a note, the Tu-160, which was produced into 1992, was the last type of aircraft in the world built with variable-sweep wings. However, in 2015, Russian announced plans to start producing the Tu-160 again in 2020.

          The jointly developed Panavia Tornado (developed by Italy, the UK, and West Germany) had its first flight in 1974 and entered service in 1979. In the US, the F-111 wad is first flight in 1964 and was introduced in 1967, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat had its first flight in 1970 and became active in 1974, and the B-1 Lancer had its fist flight in 1974 but did not become active until 1986. Both had variable-sweep wings.

          On the civilian side, Boeing looked at sweep wings for a supersonic transport, the 2707, but abandoned the thought for the more common delta-wing design.


          B-1 - USA (in service)

          F-111 - USA (retired 1998) and Australia (retired 2010)

          F-14 - USA (to 2006) and Iran (in service)

          MiG-23 - Russia, Angola, Bulgaria, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, India, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria (in service). Many other counties formerly used this aircraft.

          MiG-27 - Russia, India, and Kazakhstan (in service). A few other countries used to use this aircraft.

          Su-17 / Su-20 / Su-22 - Angola, Iran, Libya, Poland, Peru, Syria, and Vietnam (in service). Many other counties formerly used this aircraft.

          Su-24 - Russia, Algeria, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine (in service)

          Tornado - UK, Germany, Italy, and Saudi Arabia (in service).

          Tu-22M - Russia (in service)

          Tu-160 - Russia (in service).


          Daverede, Alex. (2017). "What happened to the American SST?"  Retrieved from https://declassification.blogs.archives.gov/2017/07/28/what-happened-to-the-american-sst/

          Espacenet (n.d.) "High-speed aircraft wing and tail surfaces having variable sweepback." Retrieved from https://worldwide.espacenet.com/publicationDetails/originalDocument?CC=US&NR=2744698A&KC=A&FT=D&ND=3&date=19560508&DB=EPODOC&locale=en_EP#

          Wikipedia. (n.d.). "Variable-sweep wing." Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variable-sweep_wing#Variable-sweep_aircraft

          JE comments:  Very informative, Brian!  For my layperson's brain, the gist is this:  spread-out wings provide more lift for takeoff and better stability while landing, while tucked-back wings reduce drag for higher speeds.  Makes lots of sense.

          And what's there not to love about a plane called the Westland-Hill Pterodactyl IV?  I cribbed an image off the 'Net.  This one does look like it would be a handful to fly...but try piloting an actual pterodactyl.

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        • Variable-Sweep Wings (Michael Sullivan, USA 02/10/19 6:12 AM)
          A correction to John E's comment of February 9th. The Boeing SST did not have variable-swept wings, but it was envisioned with them initially and then discarded for financial and technical reasons. The Russian Tu-144 had variable-swept canards.

          Several fighter aircraft were designed with variable-swept wings with 1950s and '60s technology. American fighters and military aircraft developed with the variable-swept wings were the F-14 Tomcat, the F-11 Aardvark and the B-1 Lancer bomber.

          The Brits and Germans had the variable-sweep winged Tornado, and the Russians had several MiGs and SUs fighter aircraft with them. The object was to let them fly at very high speeds with minimum drag with the wings swept fully aft and then fly slowly for landing approaches or aircraft carrier landings. This theory was soon replaced by better design of wings and fuselages. No modern aircraft are designed with them today.

          JE comments:  Michael, can you tell us more about your thesis project on the American SST?  I've been intrigued ever since you mentioned it in yesterday's post.  When the program was canceled, did you move on to a different topic?

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          • My 1971 Thesis on the SST (Michael Sullivan, USA 02/13/19 3:42 AM)
            John E asked about my 1971 thesis on the SST. My thesis was accepted, as it was a one-of-a-kind paper on the SSTs built by the Russians (Tu-144), the British/French Concorde, and the on-paper version of the Boeing SST.

            The Boeing SST was going to carry twice the passengers compared to the Tu-144 and Concorde and of course, was a much larger aircraft. Boeing thought that the increased passenger load would help with profitability and defray costs. There were huge risks in the future of SST profitability and the development costs, and the Boeing SST turned out to be unacceptable for Congress to help fund.

            I was hoping the US would build it, as man has always wanted to go faster whether in an aircraft, car, boat or train! Cutting the flight times between Europe, the US, Asia, Africa and South America to less than half of the current flight times makes international travel more appealing, and the businessmen and women who travel internationally for a living very happy! With a global economy, air travel is increasing internationally every year, so if a new SST can be operated generating profits, why not?

            As technology keeps developing more fuel-efficient engines, less fuel consumption to increase range, stronger metals to increase the airframe's capability to withstand the high temperatures, and it becomes economically feasible to develop an SST, somebody will attempt to build one again!

            JE comments:  I wonder what the Congressional SST money ended up being spent on.  One thing's for certain, it wasn't as cool or as memorable as the supersonic plane.

            Even the Seattle SuperSonics (basketball) are no more--they moved to Oklahoma City.

            Michael, I share your hope that we'll see a viable SST someday.  Elon Musk, are you listening?

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            • Airbus to Discontinue Production of A380 Superjumbo (Edward Jajko, USA 02/17/19 5:01 AM)
              WAIS has discussed airplanes recently.

              Here's a story about an airplane that, like the commercial American SST, has fallen victim to changing economics.

              Airbus to Scrap A380 Superjumbo Production as Sales Slump


              JE comments:  This is sad, but the existing A380s will keep flying into the 2030s.  The largest customer is Emirates, which is outside my circle of travels.  Who in WAISworld has flown on the massive A380?

              Ah, economics!  You've dashed many a grand vision.

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              • Airbus A380: Victim of Bad Economics (Henry Levin, USA 02/17/19 3:19 PM)

                The A380 is a beautiful plane and as comfortable as any commercial jetliner. Yet the economics were bad from the beginning. Only a limited number of airports can accommodate its size and attendant needs. Moreover, when 500 people exit the flight of a single plane, the baggage areas become unbelievably crowded and the time that it takes to unload the baggage and find your equipage can be daunting.  Most airports cannot keep so much luggage on the belt, so it must be unloaded in the aisles alongside the carousels and requires searching up and down aisles for your luggage for many people rather than spying it on the belt.

                I can tell you more, but note that there can be awful diseconomies of scale, even for a beautiful airship. The European conglomerate put too much emphasis on the initially large orders and expected prestige from such a large ship (with showers and other accoutrements and big orders from the Gulf States) rather than checking to see if airports would make the modifications that could accommodate it.

                JE comments:  Among other lessons learned, the A380 may be the last big plane with four engines.  (Boeing's final 747 was delivered in 2009.)  Two engines can now do the trick, far more cheaply, and with acceptable levels of safety.

                Still, it would be nice to shower before getting off a long flight...

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                • Current Production of Boeing 747s (Michael Sullivan, USA 02/18/19 2:53 AM)
                  John E wrote that Boeing's final 747 was delivered in 2009. Actually, in 2018 Boeing still had around 20 orders, but through an earlier decision it has has cut production to six per year. I just read that if more orders get cancelled they might stop the production line of the 747 in the 3rd quarter, 2019.

                  Most of these 747 aircraft are the freight versions, with the last passenger version 747 being delivered 31 July 2017 to Korean Air.

                  JE comments:  I stand corrected. According to Wikipedia, the 747s first flight was on February 9th, 1969.  That's exactly half a century for the same architecture--what a marvel of design and longevity.

                  Michael, have you been following the latest developments on Japan's upcoming F-3 stealth fighter?  On paper it's extremely impressive, including a possible two-seat configuration that can act as a "mother ship" to a squadron of drones:


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                  • Japan's F-3 Stealth Fighter (Michael Sullivan, USA 02/18/19 2:51 PM)
                    I haven't been following the F-3 development closely. But Japan has supposedly ordered over a hundred F-35s, so I don't really see the need for the F-3, which is being designed to replace the F-2 which was based on the American F-16 design.

                    If Japan goes ahead and produces the F-3 fighter it will probably be semi-stealthy, smaller and lighter than the F-35 with less capability but probably a much lower price tag.

                    Japan needs to replace its fighter force of aging F-4s, F-15s and F-2s, so they're involved with big selection decisions currently. Do they go with F-35s only, as that's the most advanced state of fighter capabilities today, or do they go with a mix of F-35s and less capable F-3s but have more fighters for the same costs?

                    JE comments: General Sullivan gave an excellent overview of the F-35 in his WAIS '13 talk in Adrian. Michael, what do those in the know have to say about its performance five years later?  Has the F-35 lived up to its massive price tag?

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                    • F-35: A Marine Pilot's Appraisal (Michael Sullivan, USA 02/19/19 2:43 PM)
                      Five years down the road from the talk I gave at WAIS/Adrian on the status of the F-35 program, it is now a fully developing program with nearly 500 F35 As, Bs, Cs delivered worldwide by the close of FY 2019.

                      The US will have taken delivery of 379 with the USAF getting 222, the Marines 83 and the Navy 44. The remaining have gone to Britain, Israel, Australia, Norway, Netherlands, Italy and Japan. Denmark has committed to buy it, and India and Canada are still debating which new fighter they'll buy. The US buy is targeted at 2,443 F-35s and foreign military sales program forecasts 680 F-35s.

                      The F-35 is still controversial today, as F-35 critics still say it's too expensive and more importantly it isn't performing as it was advertised it would. Initially the price tag was around $200 million for the Marine F-35B, as it was more expensive as it had a normal jet engine plus another lift fan engine to allow it to make short take-offs and vertical landings. The Air Force's F-35A is the basic design and the price has come down to under $90 million each for the next block of F-35As being delivered. The Marine version and the Navy's F35C are both still over a $100 million each, but the price will drop after the next few blocks that are delivered. The predictions are the total US buy of 2,443 is $400 billion and support for the aircraft out to 2070 will end up with the program costing at or over $1 trillion dollars.

                      The biggest complaints from the F-35 critics is that the aircraft still has so many workarounds and deficiencies that haven't been fixed, that the range is too short, the airframe life was supposed to be 8,000 hours but some are predicting half that time as cracks and metal fatigue are already starting to show up. One of the biggest problems is the Automatic Logistics Information System being very unreliable, which affects the maintenance efforts fixing and ordering parts for the aircraft. The latest computer programs that will make the F-35 perform through its entire spectrum as advertised won't come along until 2023 or so. However, the Marines have been operating the aircraft since 2015, have flown it in combat in Syria which isn't saying much, and are operating at sea off the USS Wasp in the western Pacific.

                      The Marine F-35 pilots that I've talked with love the aircraft and say it's infinitely superior to the F-18s and Harriers they flew before. The military is gaining confidence in the F-35 program as the price has come down considerably, the aircraft is performing better each time there is a new computer program issued and is has proven is does a lot of missions better than current legacy aircraft. However, the F-35 critics will be there for the life of the aircraft as that's the way it always works.  Fighter pilots and aero engineers have strong egos and are never satisfied!

                      JE comments: It's hard to believe the F-35 will still be around in 2070, but the B-52 bomber is already 60+ years old.  Wikipedia says it will continue in service until 2050.  Try to wrap your mind around flying a 100-year-old plane...in combat!

                      Thanks, as always, to Michael Sullivan for his insider's perspective.

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                • Stability of the Airbus A380 (Carmen Negrin, France 02/19/19 4:34 AM)

                  The best part of the Airbus A380 is its stability. It is true that most airports are not equipped for it, landing and luggage reception, but they might have to come back to it or at least use the lessons learned by its new technology, given that turbulences are meant to increase with climate change.

                  JE comments:  Might a lot of A380's stability be due to sheer size and weight?  Of course this is not my area of expertise.  (Give our discussions of recent days, we may need a new bacronym:  WAIS, World Aircraft Interest Society!)

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