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Stunning failures

Fantastic machines - but they didn't really go anywhere

by Julian Edgar

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We all know of the transport success stories - the Boeing 747, the Model T Ford, the original Mini… even the Liberty ships of World War II. But what about those vehicles that seemed to have all the technological ingredients to be successful… but then weren’t?

Let’s take a look at some machines that ended up going nowhere, despite at the time seeming to be the best of ideas.

USSR ‘150’ medium range bomber

Picture the time – it’s mid-late 1945. World War II has ended, the Allies are triumphant. But while Germany may have been vanquished, the Allies were aware that in some significant technological areas, the Germans were well ahead. Areas like aircraft design, rocket engines and missiles. The scramble was on to not only seize examples of these cutting-edge technologies, but also to make use of the brains behind them.

The United States, the United Kingdom and the USSR all tried to persuade German engineers and scientists to come aboard – the US, with Operation Paperclip, being the most successful in outcomes. But the Soviets were not far behind.

In both the Soviet Union - and initially also in Soviet-controlled East Germany - the USSR set up German-staffed design bureaus. In fact, by 1946, no less than an incredible 7,000 German scientists and engineers were working in the Soviet Union on designs of aircraft, jet engines and rocket engines.

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So what did they produce? The ‘150’ medium bomber was one such design – a German aircraft, developed from scratch, undertaking its first test flights in the Soviet Union in 1952!

A superb looking aircraft, it used wings swept back at an angle of 35 degrees. Beneath the wings, on short pylons, were two Soviet-developed axial jet engines.

A bicycle style of undercarriage was used, with roll stability provided by wide-spaced extra wheels that retracted into wing-tip fairings. During take-off, the front undercarriage could ‘kneel’, so changing the wings’ angle of attack by 3 degrees and giving a shorter take-off run.

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Flight control systems were fly-by-wire – possibly the first example of an aircraft thus equipped in the world. Individual electric motors drove torsional shafts using screw-and-nut pairs. To cater for a dual engine failure (and so loss of electric power to the controls) an ancillary ram-air turbine was also installed; it provided enough power for the flight controls and also night illumination of cockpit instrumentation.

The forward section of the fuselage was pressurised and accommodated three of the four crew. A tail gunner was accommodated in another pressurised compartment. The centre fuselage accommodated 6000kg of bombs or could be converted to housing large fuel tanks. A tall T-shaped tail was fitted.

After a prolonged gestation, the aircraft prototype was ready for test flying in September 1952. In tests, the aircraft achieved Mach 0.9, had a speed in level flight at 15,000 feet of 599 mph, and met criteria for stability and controllability. In fact, the aircraft met or exceeded all its design specs.

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On its 17th test flight the aircraft made a heavy landing and was damaged. The damage was assessed as repairable, but it was not to be. The decision was made that the aircraft should be disassembled and stored until further notice; subsequently it was transferred to an educational institution as a teaching aid!

So what happened?

One suggestion is that the introduction of the Ilyushin Il-28 tactical bomber and the successful acceptance trials of the Tupolev Tu-16 medium-range bomber meant there was no need for an intermediate-class machine. A less charitable analysis might be that Soviet pride got in the way of allowing the German design to succeed…

Doble Model F Roadster

Around the turn of last century there were three automotive propulsion systems vying for superiority – the internal combustion engine, electric and steam. It was neck and neck, with contemporary technical publications giving equal prominence to each approach.

However, by the 1920s the fight was over – internal combustion engines reigned supreme. But tell that to Abner Doble.

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A man who was a fastidious technician – he thought the famous Stanley steamers were appallingly crude – Doble used in his steam-powered cars a burner connected to an electric blower. Petrol or a petrol-kerosene mixture was ignited by a battery, coil and sparkplug. Fuel burning continued until the water tube boiler reached maximum pressure, at which point the burner switched off automatically. Fast starting was possible from cold (normally a bugbear with steam cars) and could be achieved in as little as 90 seconds. The use of a condenser meant that steam (and so water) was not lost.

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The Doble used a four cylinder engine with 213 cubic inch displacement and developed 125hp at just 1300 rpm. Steam pressure was 750 psi, the pressure contained within 575 feet of cold-drawn seamless steel tube shaped into a compact form. The boiler was tested with cold water to a staggering 7000 psi.

The car’s cruising speed was 75 mph and top speed close to 100. Against contemporary competitors, this was simply amazing performance.

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And the Dobles weren’t bare-bones. A variety of bodies – supplied by an external contractor – were available and could be luxuriously equipped. The beautiful 1930 Doble Model F roadster is shown here.

But the cars were expensive, and Doble’s company shareholders were defrauded by stock manipulating crooks. The company was on its last legs when the Great Crash of 1929 finished it off; the Model F was the last true Doble steam car.

The R100 airship

Nowadays it’s the norm to consider airships as being a ridiculous dead-end technology: the Hindenburg has becomes synonymous for disaster.

But that’s a reinvention of history that ignores the overwhelming technological dominance that lighter-than-air machines had over contemporary aircraft. In the days of the 1920s and 1930s, airships were literally the only way for passengers to speedily cross giant oceans, riding high above the sea and in glorious comfort.

That was the style of travel able to be enjoyed in airships just like the R100 – before the United Kingdom government summarily had this superb airship dismembered and sold for scrap.

So what happened?

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In the 1920s, Britain decided to build two airships. One, called the R100, would be built by a private company – the Airship Guarantee Company, a subsidiary of Vickers. The other, the R101, would be built by the UK government at the Royal Airship Works. The two competitive designs would each be capable of carrying 100 passengers and cargo over distances of up to 3500 miles (5600km). Both airships were considerably larger than any others of the period – including the famous German Graf Zeppelin.

The R100’s design was supervised by Barnes Wallis, later to become famous as the designer of the World War II bouncing bomb and the Wellington geodesic structured bomber. (Curiously, also on the R100 engineering team was Nevil Shute Norway, later to become famous as novelist Nevil Shute.)

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As befitted an airship on the cutting-edge of design, the R100 carried passengers in elaborate style. Accommodation was over three different floors, the bottom being allocated to the crew and the upper two floors to passengers. The passenger floors were linked by a grand staircase. Cooking was carried out in an electric kitchen, and passengers were quartered in two and four-birth cabins.

Power was provided by six Rolls Royce Condor aircraft engines, running on petrol. The R100 adopted a more streamlined approach than the previous German airships, with an overall length of 709 feet (216 metres) and a maximum diameter of 133 feet (40.5 metres).

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In July 1930, the R100 undertook a long-distance proving flight – it flew from the UK to Canada! This flight was completed with only some minor problems… the R100 was a huge success.

And what of the government-built R101? It was plagued with problems during the build and in its first trial flights. Its performance was so bad that the decision was made to slice the airship in two to allow a new section to be inserted, increasing length by 777 feet (237 metres) and providing greater lift.

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Rather than fly to Canada, the R101’s long-distance proving flight was to India – but it never got there. It crashed in France, the hydrogen lift gas burning intensely and killing almost all the crew.

Deeply shocked by the tragedy, Britain lost all enthusiasm for airships. In November 1931, the R100 was broken up for scrap.

The SR.N4 Hovercraft

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Perhaps here the SR-N4 hovercraft is the odd one out. After all, unlike the other machines covered in this story, this enormous hovercraft was put into service - and not just as a prototype, but built in multiple iterations. And the SR.N4 class worked successfully for many years, carrying many tens of thousands of passengers – and their cars – back and forth across the English Channel.

But in any historical perspective, the huge hovercraft represented a path that led nowhere. Rather than being the precursor of even larger machines that would revolutionise passenger transport, the SR.N4 proved to be a technological orphan.

An immensely impressive, wondrous machine to be sure. But not the way of the future.

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The SR.N4 followed a series of smaller hovercraft built in the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s. Designed specifically for ferry duties (in its first versions it carried 278 passengers and 36 cars) on legs of up to 100 nautical miles (185km), the hovercraft was powered by four 3400 shaft horsepower Rolls Royce marine Proteus jet engines. Each engine was connected to one of four identical propeller/fan units, two forward and two aft. The propulsion propellers were of the four-bladed, variable and reversible pitch type, no less than 5.79m in diameter.

The pylons (on which the propellers were mounted), fins and rudders moved through +/- 35 degrees, +/- 30 degrees and +/- 40 degrees respectively. The control signals were transmitted electronically.

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Construction was much more ‘aircraft’ than ‘ship’. High strength aluminium alloy was used, with sandwich panels used on all horizontal surfaces except for the cabin roof. The machine had a mass of 200 tonnes, a length of 39.68 metres, width of 23.77 metres and overall height (when standing on its landing pads) of 11.48 metres.

And it was fast – incredibly fast when you consider that these hovercraft threaded their way through the ships sailing up and down the English Channel. Top speed was 70 knots (130 km/h) and normal service speed was 40 – 60 knots (74 – 111 km/h).

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The craft operated across the Channel between 1968 and 2000. The discontinuation of their service was due to multiple reasons: the machines had reached the end of their useful life, and the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 decreased demand. And there was another reason too. In 1999, duty-free alcohol was abolished in Europe, leading to decrease in foot passengers ducking across to France for the day to load up with cheap alcohol.

You can see two of these incredible machines at the hovercraft museum at Lee-on-the-Solent in the UK.


They might not have proved to be the way of the future that their designers had expected - but the world is a better place for having seen these fantastic machines...

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