Supersonic Jets That Weren’t

Eighteen years after the last flight of the Concorde, supersonic jets are making a comeback. United Airlines is buying fifteen planes from a new company, Boom, which would enter service later this decade. Flight times from London to New York would be cut in half.

There was a time when the future of flight was supersonic. After the first supersonic fighter jets joined the air fleets of NATO and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, British and French aircraft manufacturers started development of a supersonic passenger plane, which would culminate in the Concorde. Afraid of being eclipsed by their European rivals, Boeing and Lockheed put their own plans into motion, funded by the United States Congress. The Soviets couldn’t stay behind and eventually beat Concorde to the first faster-than-sound commercial flight in 1968 with the Tupolev Tu-144.

Little came of the American design efforts, and supersonic flights were banned over the continental United States due to loud sonic booms. Concorde was allowed to fly into Washington DC and New York, but by the time it was able to make frequent transatlantic crossings, competition from the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet”, which could seat four times the passengers of the previously-ubiquitous Boeing 707, meant there was no mass market for a supersonic airliner anymore. Rising oil prices didn’t help, and Concorde needed four times the fuel of the 747. Concorde became a plaything of the rich. In 1997, a round-trip from London to New York would set you back nearly $8,000, or $13,000 in today’s money; thirty times the price of the cheapest ticket available.

What doomed Concorde was the only fatal accident in its history: the 2000 crash at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in which all 109 passengers and crew were killed. Coming just before a general downtown in commercial aviation due to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and after Airbus announced it would no longer supply replacement parts for the aircraft, it meant the end of the supersonic dream.

How different things had looked in the 1960s and 70s.

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The Designs of Norman Bel Geddes

Norman Bel Geddes was an American industrial designer and futurist who had a major influence on the streamlined Art Deco design of the 1930s and 40s.

Geddes started out as a theater set designer before opening his own industrial design studio in 1927. His early work included such consumer products as cocktail shakers and radio cabinets. He quickly moved on to more ambitious projects, including a teardrop-shaped car and the amphibian Airliner Number 4.

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Airships of War

In the real world, airships weren’t successful weapons of war. Zeppelins were terrifying but inaccurate. Navigation, target selection and bomb aiming were difficult under the best of circumstances. In darkness, at high altitude and amid the English clouds, accuracy was too much to ask for.

British propaganda poster
1916 British propaganda poster depicts a German zeppelin being shot down

German zeppelins were initially immune to attack by aeroplane and anti-aircraft guns. As the pressure in their envelopes was only just higher than ambient, holes had little effect. But once incendiary bullets were developed and used against them, their flammable hydrogen lifting gas made them vulnerable at low altitudes. Several zeppelins were shot down in flames by British defenders. Others crashed on the way to England. The Germans started flying higher and higher, but this only made their airships even less effective.

The zeppelin campaign proved to be a disaster in terms of morale, men and material. Many pioneers of the German airship service were lost.

But why let such facts stand in the way of a good story?

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The Fabulous Vehicles of Thunderbirds

F.A.B.! If you grew up watching Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s marionette science-fiction show, you’ll remember that among the greatest things about it were the futuristic vehicles. In addition to the Thunderbirds machines, there were supersonic airplanes, nuclear-powered ships and spacecraft.

For the uninitiated: the 1960s franchise, set in the 2060s, is about a wealthy family that runs the life-saving International Rescue organization from an island in the South Pacific. Each episode features a disaster, typically involving a futuristic vehicle, to which the Thunderbirds respond with their unique capabilities.

Here is a look at some of the most fabulous vehicles of the week.

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Unsinkable British Aircraft Carrier — On Ice!

In 1942, the War in the Atlantic was not going well for the Allies. German submarines, operating in “wolf packs” just out of aircraft range, wrecked havoc on Allied supply lines. In the first half of the year, the Allies managed to sink just one U-boat for every forty merchant ships lost. At that rate, Britain would soon run out of matériel to sustain the war.

Atlantic Ocean map
Map of the military situation in the Atlantic in mid-1941, from Life magazine (July 21, 1941)

Lord Louis Mountbatten, as chief of Combined Operations, was responsible for coming up with a solution. He encouraged his department to explore every possibility, no matter how outlandish. One of the ideas, which originated with the inventor Geoffrey Pyke, was to built an aircraft carrier out of ice, which would allow the Allies to attack German U-boats no matter how far they sailed from the coast. The reason Pyke settled on ice was that aluminum and steel were in such short supply.

Mountbatten and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were enthusiastic.

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Weapons of Red Alert

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996), Albert Einstein travels back in time and kills Adolf Hitler. He prevents the emergence of Nazi Germany, but this clears the way for a Soviet invasion of Europe in 1946.

The Soviets are defeated, but they get their revenge three decades later in Red Alert 2 (2000) by attacking the continental United States.

In the third game (2008), it are the Soviets who travel back in time to prevent their defeat at the hand of the Allies. Their trip has unforeseen consequences as well: they inadvertently create a more powerful Japan and trigger a three-way world war.

Throughout these games we get to play with some crazy diesel- and atompunk weapons, from the Soviets’ mighty Apocalypse Tank to Tesla Troopers.

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