Fork-tailed Devils and Flying Shoes
What does the Northrop P-61 have in common with Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne?
- By Mark Gatlin
- Air & Space magazine, January 2005
NASM (SI Neg. #00010700)
(Page 4 of 4)
Vladimir Mikhailovich Myasishchev initially created the M-17 Stratosphera (that’s “Mystic,” to NATO) to shoot down U.S. reconnaissance balloons. By the time of its 1982 first flight—after its designer’s death—it had lost its gun turret and become a spyplane. The design was probably influenced by two earlier projects: the twin-boom Sukhoi Su-12, a 1947 piston-engine recce aircraft that went only as far as prototype, and the Yakovlev Yak-25RV, a high-altitude reconnaissance jet with sailplane-like wings similar to those of the M-17. The Mystic could loiter for four hours at 65,000 feet, but it never achieved the altitude performance of the Lockheed U-2, its U.S. counterpart. Its short fuselage is the single design advantage the M-17 had over the U-2. Says aviation historian Jay Miller, “Jet engines—regardless of whether they are turbojet or turbofan—lose efficiency depending on the length of the exhaust pipe. The U-2’s fuselage and associated lengthy engine exhaust tube have historically been one of its few Achilles’ heels.” A twin-engine descendant, the M-55 Geophysika, flies atmospheric research missions, just as NASA’s ER-2 research craft—civilian versions of the U-2—do in this country.
In aviation’s baby days, twin tail booms were an answer to the question “Where do we put the propeller?” Before Anthony Fokker’s 1915 invention of a mechanism to synchronize the firing of a machine gun with the spinning of propeller blades (the gear first appeared on the Fokker E.1 Eindecker fighter), placing the engine and propeller behind the fuselage cleared the way for a gun in the nose. The U.S. Army banned pusher engines in 1914 after several pilots died in crashes, but many European World War I aircraft used them. The first British airplane designed as a fighter, the Vickers Fighting Biplane 5, also known as the “Gunbus,” had a pusher, as did the Airco D.H.2. Both fighters used a fixed forward gun—and were frequently shot down from the rear.
Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman became a believer in unmanned aerial vehicles in 1983. After the bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lehman viewed a video shot by an Israeli UAV. It showed the Marine commandant inspecting damage. The aircraft had been so inconspicuous that the general had no idea he was on camera, yet Lehman easily recognized the man. The U.S. Navy’s RQ-2A Pioneer UAV was born.
Like the Israeli Scout, from which it evolved, the 450-pound Pioneer has 40 pounds of sensors and cameras up front, balanced by a two-cylinder, 26-hp gasoline engine and pusher propeller behind. Steve Reid, program manager for Pioneer UAV Inc., says the booms, besides supporting the tailplane, have served as a fence around the propeller, preventing injuries in the tight shipboard and battlefield environments where the Pioneer operates.
The U.S. Army Air Forces needed a dedicated military cargo plane so desperately in 1942 that General H.H. “Hap” Arnold ordered development of the Fairchild C-82 Packet after seeing only a rough sketch. Twin tail booms, a high wing, and a low-hung fuselage allowed most wheeled vehicles to drive right into the cargo bay. It had enough room for 44 paratroopers or 2,870 cubic feet of cargo—the size of a standard railroad boxcar, hence its nickname, the Flying Boxcar. Packets, however, played no role in the war. By 1948 the C-82 needed a host of modifications (though not the hatchet job performed by Jimmy Stewart and castmates in the 1965 movie The Flight of the Phoenix). The result, the C-119, now officially the Flying Boxcar, carried more cargo and paratroopers farther and faster. It served in the Korean War, playing a critical role in the Chosin Reservoir breakout in December 1950 by dropping eight bridge sections that created an escape route across a deep gorge (see “Breakout from Chosin,” June/July 2000). In Vietnam, AC-119G Shadow and AC-119K Stinger gunships supported ground combat with flares, infrared sensors, and four Gatling miniguns. The Stinger also had two 20-mm Vulcan cannon. Hawkins and Powers Aviation of Turnbull, Wyoming, still flies a C-82 and two C-119Gs (one was just used in a remake of The Flight of the Phoenix).
A final version, the XC-120 Packplane prototype, featured a detachable container pod, which mated to the fuselage by means of complicated gear that tucked into the fuselage and booms in flight. World War II Army Airborne legend General James M. Gavin called it “the most significant development ever produced by the American aircraft industry.” None were ordered.