Nothing says future of aviation like a flying wing. A century after they were first imagined, they still look futuristic. Probably because so few of them have flown.
Dieselpunk loves to stock the Nazi air fleet with flying wings designed by the brother Walter and Reimar Horten, but they weren’t the only pioneers in the field. America’s Jack Northrop, founder of the Northrop Corporation, was another flying-wing advocate. His designs didn’t impress the Air Force in the 1940s, but after his death his company would sell the Pentagon a flying wing after all: the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, the most expensive aircraft ever made.
Northrop is designing the B-2’s successor. Many unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are flying wings. They may even — finally — come to commercial aviation, almost a century after magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science predicted they would.
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.
The “traction city” of London in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001) and its 2018 film adaptation (our review here) is probably the best-known example of a city on wheels. But it’s not the only one! In fact, there are enough examples in steampunk to call this a genre trope.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Flying aircraft carriers show up in steampunk, dieselpunk and atompunk fiction so often, we can consider them a genre trope. From Castle Wulfenbach in Girl Genius to the British aircraft carriers in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to the helicarriers of S.H.I.E.L.D., here is a look at these behemoths of the sky.
Soviet engineers experimented with some unusual aircraft designs, from the bullet-shaped Sukhoi T-4 supersonic bomber to the Concorde lookalike Tupolev Tu-144 to the Caspian Sea Monster. Most never advanced beyond the prototype stage.
Here is a look at some of the strangest aircraft of the Soviet Union.
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.