January 28, 2013
Time was when almost every boy knew how to carefully lower a bubble canopy to a P-51 Mustang, eyeball a fuselage to make sure the wings were straight on a P-47, or perhaps line up the Luftwaffe cross on the wings of a Ju-88. All done with glue-smeared and paint-stained fingertips. Today, plastic models have given way to Xboxes and PlayStations.
I’ve collected models since childhood. They spent decades stored in cardboard boxes, following me from move to move. Once we settled back in Florida, I finally unpacked them and carefully shelved the kits above my father’s old worktable, where he had once built museum-quality ship models that were auctioned at Sotheby’s. My airplanes were never gallery-worthy, but they were still a pleasant reminder of my youth.
Years ago, when I began working for Air & Space as an editor, I found those old plastic models served me in another way. Spend hours of frustration painting cockpit details or studying the various struts of a Rube Goldberg F4F Wildcat landing gear trying to get it to a) not collapse, and b) not make the model tilt drunkenly to one side, and you find you can start to recognize aircraft simply by a propeller spinner, a gear door, or a wing — a skill that became valuable when editing photo captions, for instance. A chin turret on a B-17? It’s obviously a “G” model. A two-door nose gear on an F-16? Why, that’s the prototype YF-16 and not a production “A” model.
It warmed my heart when my then-nine-year-old son Ian caught the bug and started building kits from my dusty collection. First an F4U Corsair, then the inevitable P-51. And, without prompting, the day came when he wanted help hanging the planes from his bedroom ceiling — something I, and most of my friends, had done 30-odd years earlier, but few kids do today. Pretty soon a de Havilland Mosquito had joined the formation behind a Martin B-26, while a North American T-28, Republic P-47D, and Lockheed P-38J flew a combat air patrol over his bunk bed. Now age 11, his skills have improved, and he’s currently working on a Douglas SBD Dauntless — a kit I also built when I was his age — that features a retractable landing gear, dive flaps, and a droppable bomb.
The English company Airfix began producing plastic kits in 1947, but it was its 1953 Supermarine Spitfire that is perhaps best known, and beloved, by aircraft modelers. Check out this excerpt from the first episode of the BBC series James May’s Toy Stories, in which the host enlists a crew of kids to build a full-scale Spitfire model, molded in the form of the Airfix kit:
American companies like Lindberg, Revell, and Monogram were staples of my own childhood air force, later to be joined by the excellent kits of Japanese companies like Hasegawa and Tamiya. The earliest plastic kits were rudimentary, with sometimes questionable proportions and ridiculous steam locomotive-appropriate rivets festooning fuselages and wings. But they were only a few bucks, well within a typical suburban allowance. Todays airplane modelers are typically my age, and the high-end kits are bought with twenties. Inside, they’re nearly perfect technical representations, with recessed panel lines and laser-etched metal accessories for fine details, like the thin metal frame of a Head Up Display. Some, especially large-scale warbirds, like the latest 1/32 scale jets, can run hundreds of dollars.
As of tonight, the Dauntless is painted, and has done some practice bombing runs in the living room. Soon, it’ll take its place hanging in formation, rolling in on an imaginary Japanese destroyer sailing the carpet below.
January 23, 2013
Back in the 1990s, I spied a piece of burned paper in a dusty Illinois junk shop. For 20 bucks, I purchased a singed envelope that had been placed in a mailbox in 1919, postmarked in New York, and sent by airmail to Sutiff & Case Co., in Peoria. The letter was never delivered. Also inside the cheap wooden frame — with a broken string attached, indicating that it once hung on a wall — was an apologetic letter dated May 28, 1919, from W.B Carlile, the Chicago postmaster:
The enclosed piece of mail matter was damaged in the aero-plane accident at Cleveland, Ohio, May 25th.
The incident is very much regretted.
When those papers were first displayed, American airmail service was little more than a year old — the U.S. Army had begun flying regularly scheduled flights on May 15, 1918, with deliveries between Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. In August, the Army turned the operation over to the Postal Service. The accompanying newspaper clipping described the crash of Frank McCusker, who was flying the newly inaugurated New York-to-Cleveland route, and was the second Postal Service air pilot to perish when his de Havilland DH-4 caught fire after taking off from Cleveland. The doomed and parachute-less pilot jumped to his death.
Those seminal years were extremely dangerous for airmail pilots — flying surplus aircraft, with little more than a sight of a river or road for navigation. Some were veterans of the Great War; others were barely out of flight school. Between 1919 and 1926, 35 pilots died hauling Christmas missives, overdue bills, and humdrum human communication now delivered with a mouse click.
Indeed, by 1975, the term “air mail” would be dropped from Postal Service lexicon; today nearly every letter travels most of its journey as unremarkable baggage beneath the feet of thousands of bored flyers dozing toward their hurried connection in Atlanta or Dallas. And yet, it’s hard to look at that charred letter and not think of the bravery of Frank McCusker as he climbed into an open cockpit 94 years ago, daring the clouds that lay ahead.
January 15, 2013
Ever since my first trip with my Dad, who worked for National Airlines and Pan American, I’ve always loved when the engines throttle up and the runway lights start to track by. I don’t understand dropping the shade for a lousy movie or snoozing in the aisle seat. A window, always.
A few times I’ve seen what I believe to be a shock wave forming on the wing of the jet I was traveling on. Ernst Mach told us that at sea level, the speed of sound — Mach one, or the ratio of the speed of sound at a given altitude and the speed of the vehicle — is around 750 miles per hour. The outside air temperature, or OAT, is important here (which I also remember being a factor during test engine runs as a crew chief) because the density of air at a given altitude affects the speed of sound.
Recently, during an American flight from Atlanta, I saw what I thought was a shock wave dancing along the upper surface of the wing; it rode back and forth, divided, re-combined, and stayed visible until we began to descend. I even got a picture.
Based on a quick, and quite possibly faulty, Internet search, my best guess at the speed of sound at our announced altitude — 39,000 feet — is about 660 mph, or 574 knots. The cruising speed of the latest 737s (Next Generation) is 514 mph, with a max speed of 544 mph. Theoretically, the difference between the speed of sound at that altitude and the speed of our jet was as low as 116 mph — a few feet outside the window of a near-sighted airplane geek with his tray table down in seat 15A.
I checked with Gordon Leishman, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park, who emailed back:
Yes, what you have is a photo of a shock wave (well, it is the shadow of the shockwave cast onto the wing). So, we call such images shadowgraphs or shadowgrams. Seen it many times, have many photos, generations of my students have taken photos, etc. Science from your airplane window! Of course, we also use the technique in the laboratory.
Commercial jet aircraft cruise at transonic speeds (Mach 0.8 to 0.86), so there is generally always a shock or a series of bifurcated (i.e., the upside down “y”) and interconnected shocks) over the upper surface of the wing. On early jets, the shocks were nearer to the leading edge (727 is a good example), but on newer generations of aircraft with their better transonic airfoils, you will see the shocks further aft on the wing chord (777). You can also sometimes see shocks on the engine nacelle or between the nacelle and the fuselage. If the lighting is right, you may even see the optical distortion of the shock extending well off the wing surface.
Getting a good photo of the shocks is all about lighting (in this case where the sun is relative to the aircraft) so that the light rays refract and cast a shadow of the shocks on the wing. Often it is luck. In this case you can clearly see the bifurcated shock pattern as the flow over the wing interferes with the fuselage flow.
Whew. And, I thought what I saw was just due to the free drink coupons!