Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

If you love big airplanes ... and I mean BIG airplanes .. then head over to Dark Roasted Blend for my new piece on huge flying machines:
For a few thousand years the biggest things in the skies were only in our imaginations, flying figments of myth and fable: the Roc from Sinbad’s tales, the Garuda bird from the Mahabharata, the Thunderbird from North America, the Brazilian Blue Crow, and other high-flying nightmares or soaring benevolent gods and spirits.

But then a few very clever, and rather persistent, folks got tired of only dreaming. With great inventiveness, they wanted to see what was actually above the clouds. They sought to create something as wondrously big, or nightmarishly immense, as those birds of myth and legend.

Talking about big planes is very much like talking about who should get the credit for man’s first flight –- it all depends on who you talk to. As the brilliant James Burke has pointed out, inventors rarely create something from nothing –- their successes are often the result of combining the partial successes, or learning from the downright failures, of other inventors. In some cases, it's just pure dumb luck.

The Wright Brothers are often given most of the recognition for the first powered flight but Gustave Whitehead, Alexander Feodorovich Mozhaiski, Clement Ader, and many others should get a share of the fame, too. Whoever is responsible, it wasn’t long before the skies were full of sputtering, creaking, and – for the most part – very unreliable aeronautical devices.

It took the first world war to change aircraft from a killing and maiming hobby for the rich to a killing and maiming war machine. War helped advance the science of flight and necessitated bigger planes.

The Short 184 is often cited as one of the first true bombers, a huge step up simply flinging grenades from the cockpit. Created by the legendary Short Brothers, the 184 was big enough –- a world full of fabric and string mayflies -– to carry a torpedo, which must have been a terrifying sight to battleships that, until then, had ruled the sea.

Another monster plane of that time was Igor Sikorsky's Ilya Murometz, a huge improvement over his legendary Russky Vitaz, the first four engine aircraft. But the Ilya Murometz didn't begin as a beast of the skies. Originally designed as a luxurious passenger liner featuring electric lighting, heat, a bathroom, and even a glass floor, the bomber must have been amusing as well as terrifying to its wealthy passengers.

In the years between wars, airplanes kept getting bigger. Take the elegant Handley Page HP42, for instance: a four-engined beauty with an impressive track record of no crashes while being used as an airliner -- which gives you an idea of how safe it was to fly back then.

One of the larger and more beautiful aircraft in the next few decades was the awesome 1936 Boeing Stratoliner. Unfairly called a ‘whale’ because of its chubbiness, the plane was not only huge but also state of the art; today we enjoy flying in pressurized comfort because of technology premiered in the silver flying fish of the Stratoliner.

Art and elegance may have been one of the early fatalities in the second world war, but striving to have the biggest (anything) certainly wasn’t.

To call the Messerschmitt Me 321 big is like calling 1939 to 1945 unpleasant. Created originally as a guilder, the Gigant could haul an insanely large amount of cargo. And an insane bunch of soldiers: 130 plus hardware ... 23 tons of hardware. Because the Gigant was so huge, getting the damned thing into the air was, at best, problematic. First it was towed up with a pair of Heinkel 111 bombers, which was alternatively unsuccessful or disastrous. Then they tried fusing two 111s together to make a Frankenstein’s monster of a machine –- almost as bestial as the Gigant itself. Finally the Luftwaffe stuck engines on the Me321, which made an ugly brute even uglier but at least it got off the ground.

On the other side of the war was an eagle, a silvery steel bird of prey: the huge and beautiful B-29 Superfortress. Although getting the immense B-29 up to its ceiling of 40,000 feet was a struggle, once it got up there nothing could reach it or, at 350 mph, catch it. Even if something managed to come close to it, its formidable defenses could cut any threat to shreds. Featuring many impressive advancements, and some frustrating problems, the plane was kept on active duty long into the Korean war.

With the advent of jet power, aircraft designers began to think really big. Think of your average doomsday film and you immediately picture the roaring ascent of smoke-blasting, eight-engined, B52 bombers. Like the B29, the B52 was an aeronautical powerhouse, a heavy-lifting behemoth. And like the B52, it was kept in service until … well, they are still being used today.

Unlike the B29 and the B52, which don’t show their size easily, the C-5 galaxy would look insanely monstrous even on a postage stamp. To give you an idea of the galaxy’s size, its wingspan is not just longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight but the beast can also haul 180,000 pounds (which is about 90 tons). It, too, is still with us today.

The Aero Spacelines Super Guppy also has to be mentioned, which like the galaxy looks more like a prop from a Japanese monster movie than a real airplane. The Guppy is also high on the irony meter as it was mostly used to haul nearly-completed components -- of other airplanes.

Arguably the biggest plane flying today, or ever, is Antonov An-225, a 6-engine Russian beast that’s not only longer than the first flight in history but could probably carry one, two, or three whole aircraft museums. Numbers don’t mean much but here is an impressive one: the 225 can carry 550,000 pounds, which is 275 tons. Yes, you can say WOW.

The H-4 Hercules is the standard by which “huge aircraft” are measured –- as well as how “completely screwed up” is defined. Its one and only flight was in 1947, where it was airborne for a total of 70 feet. Originally planned as the ultimate military transport, it is more commonly known as its hated -- at least by its creator Howard Hughes -- moniker, the Spruce Goose.

We used to have the Roc, the Garuda bird, the Thunderbird, Blue Crow, and other soaring myths. Now we have machines; airplanes so big they’re even greater than those ancient, and magnificent, dreams.

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