Viewport: Sharing the Wealth
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the August 2010 issue of Air & Space.
An odd pair, the XB-42 and XB-43 bombers are excellent reminders that if you really want to understand aviation history, don’t skip the footnotes. Unlike many of the aircraft that came to the Smithsonian Institution shortly after World War II, the two Douglas experimental bombers did not advance technology, mark a pinnacle of aeronautical achievement, or complete a historic mission. As a matter of fact, some have looked at the Douglas XB-42, with its oversize tail and counter-rotating propellers stuck on the back of the empennage, and wondered, “What were they thinking?”
That’s exactly what we at the National Air and Space Museum and curators at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, hope visitors will ask. And it’s a question that the Air Force museum, where we recently transferred the two aircraft, is uniquely equipped to answer. That museum has assembled in a gallery, devoted to Air Force research and development, a host of exotic aircraft that were valiant attempts at solving tough engineering problems. Many of these were successful test aircraft, but others turned out to be impractical, unaffordable, or outdated by the time they were built. Either way, they teach us plenty about aviation.
Learning from the failed experiments or short-lived successes of aerospace is the basis for a new series in the magazine: “Cancelled.” In this issue, the story of the McDonnell Douglas single-stage-to-orbit DC-X (page 66) shows that even failures can leave a legacy.
In the case of the XB-42, the Douglas engineers were searching in 1943 for a way to reduce drag so they could produce a bomber with greater speed and range than those already flying. To avoid the drag created by hanging big engines with whirling props on an airplane’s wing, the engineers stuffed the engines inside the XB-42 fuselage and sent the props to the rear to keep from disturbing airflow over the wing. The result of this streamlining was a top speed of 410 mph, rivaling fighters of the era. But difficulty with the long shafts and complex gears connecting the engines to the props made the solution impractical, and the advent of the jet engine rendered it obsolete. Douglas later tried rudimentary jets on the XB-42 airframe, creating the XB-43. One XB-42, like the Convair B-36 (see page 38), had both jet and piston engines.
Although the XB-42 is an important footnote in aviation history—and its twin was the first U.S. jet-powered bomber—we at the Museum have come to realize that we don’t have the room or the funds to restore and exhibit everything we consider significant. Our stewardship of the nation’s air- and spacecraft collection has evolved, and we want to place more artifacts at other museums where they can be seen in an appropriate context. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is the perfect place for the XB-42 and -43. Some day, I hope to see them in the R&D Gallery there—and to read about them in the series “Cancelled.”
J.R. Dailey is the director of the national Air and Space Museum.