Retrotechtacular: Supersonic Transport Initiatives

In the early days of PBS member station WGBH-Boston, they in conjunction with MIT produced a program called Science Reporter. The program’s aim was explaining modern technological advances to a wide audience through the use of interviews and demonstrations. This week, we have a 1966 episode called “Ticket Through the Sound Barrier”, which outlines the then-current state of supersonic transport (SST) initiatives being undertaken by NASA.

MIT reporter and basso profondo [John Fitch] opens the program at NASA’s Ames research center. Here, he outlines the three major considerations of the SST initiative. First, the aluminium typically used in subsonic aircraft fuselage cannot withstand the extreme temperatures caused by air friction at supersonic speeds. Although the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde was skinned in aluminium, it was limited to Mach 2.02 because of heating issues. In place of aluminium, a titanium alloy with a melting point of 3,000°F is being developed and tested.

A second important consideration was one of aerodynamics. The normal drag and subsequent shock waves produced by subsonic crafts may be marginalized through the use of piercing nose designs and sleeker wing profiles and configurations. Lastly, the engines must push out very little air at high velocities. [Mr. Fitch]’s first interview is with [Mark Kelly], Ames’ Chief of Large-Scale Aerodynamics. [Mr. Kelly] describes the SST initiative’s goals in everyday terms—the cruising speed, the size of the crafts, the passenger capacity, and the estimated flight time between New York and Los Angeles (about two hours).

[Mr. Kelly] introduces the idea of supersonic testing in subsonic wind tunnels using models. First, we tour a 1/5-scale Boeing SST with adjustable-sweep wings. The wings are set to 70° sweep for supersonic cruising and 20° sweep for takeoff and landing, an important transformation designed to meet the stringent speed and noise requirements for takeoff and landing. We also see a 1/4-scale Lockheed double delta featuring fixed wings with two triangular sections. The front portion generates a high-energy vortex that produces a low-pressure field over the aft wing. This design, in combination with the sheer size of the aft delta and its control flaps creates lift very quickly.

[John Fitch]’s next interview is with [Robert Shade], a project engineer at Langley. We learn that NASA performed SST flight testing using existing subsonic planes like the F5D and the XB-70. More interestingly, they hacked a Boeing 707 into all kinds of test configurations with a special computer. The pilot operates the 707 as intended, and this computer intervenes, translating his inputs into SST-caliber operations. Finally, [Mr. Fitch] is treated to the co-pilot seat of a landing simulator that be changed to simulate the parameters of any SST and simulates approach from 1,000 feet over a realistic landscape.

[Thank you to Dave for sending this in]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

17 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Supersonic Transport Initiatives

  1. They did that on their own. PBS was created in 1970. WGBH is still doing it. PBS doesn’t make shows, several major member stations do. This is the major difference between PBS and NPR. I remember Chicago WTTW 11 before PBS.

  2. Good old Chanel 2. brings back memory’s of Dr Who and Sesame Street .
    And can’t leave out channel 56 Saturday afternoons with creature double feature :)
    As for the post itself I was just a wee lad then so documentaries really weren’t my thing.
    It was Willie Whistle and Dark Shadows for me (and of course cartoons of all kinds)

  3. “We learn that NASA performed SST flight testing using existing subsonic planes like the F5D and the XB-70.” Both of these aircraft were capable of supersonic speeds, the F5D being capable of around mach 1.5, and the XB-70 being design to travel at mach 3+ speeds.

        1. I have as I said. And she’s an extremely well dressed bird. Makes the B-52 who’s also retired there, looking like a punker at a wedding. There’s also a B-36 living there. And simply looks good. (I’ve also visited the SAC museum and its something else.)

      1. I have always wanted to see that thing in person, but have never had the opportunity… It’s one of my favorite aircraft designs of all time. A crying shame only one of the two remains. The other was lost along with one of the test pilots flying it after an accident during (just after, rather) a photo shoot of all things…

  4. Does anyone consider it ironic that all this time and effort went into the development of SST aircraft in America, Europe and Russia when the real future was in the “Flying Cattle Car” embodied in the 747.

  5. Too freaking awesome! Brings back some memories! My dad ran the LINK simulator at Langley AFB around that time. I got to visit him a couple of times, and they let me “fly” the simulator. The tilting on banking was really cool… something I wouldn’t experience again until some of the rides in Busch Gardens in the ’70’s. At the time, I might have been more fascinated by the rolling landscape that it flew over — looking at all of the roads and houses and wondering about the people who lived in them. I had pretty much forgotten all of that until I saw this vid… I was scanning the background intently, looking for any hints of Langley, LRC NASA, or Hampton. Heh. Wow.

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