Once upon a time, bailing out of a plane involved popping open the roof or door, and hopping out with your parachute, hoping that you’d maintained enough altitude to slow down before you hit the ground. As flying speeds increased and aircraft designs changed, such escape became largely impossible.
Ejector seats were the solution to this problem, with the first models entering service in the late 1940s. Around this time, the United Kingdom began development of a new fleet of bombers, intended to deliver its nuclear deterrent threat over the coming decades. The Vickers Valiant, the Handley Page Victor, and the Avro Vulcan were all selected to make up the force, entering service in 1955 through 1957 respectively. Each bomber featured ejector seats for the pilot and co-pilot, who sat at the front of the aircraft. The remaining three crew members who sat further back in the fuselage were provided with an escape hatch in the rear section of the aircraft with which to bail out in the event of an emergency.
There is a certain charm to older electronics gear. Heavy metal chassis and obviously hand-wired harness can be a work of art even if they would be economically impractical for most modern gear. Watching [msylvain59’s] tear down of a Collins 51R VOR receiver is a good example of that. The construction looks so solid.
If you aren’t familiar with VOR, it stands for VHF omnidirectional range and allows airplanes to tune into a fixed ground-based beacon and determine its heading in relation to the beacon. In some cases, it can also calculate distance.
The jet engine has a long and storied history. Its development occurred spontaneously amongst several unrelated groups in the early 20th Century. Frank Whittle submitted a UK patent on a design in 1930, while Hans von Ohain begun exploring the field in Germany in 1935. Leading on from Ohain’s work, the first flight of a jet-powered aircraft was in August 27, 1939. By the end of World War II, a smattering of military jet aircraft had entered service, and the propeller was on the way out as far as high performance aviation is concerned.
In the age of the Internet and open source, technology moves swiftly around the world. In the consumer space, companies are eager to sell their product to as many customers as possible, shipping their latest wares worldwide lest their competitors do so first. In the case of products more reliant on infrastructure, we see a slower roll out. Hydrogen-powered cars are only available in select regions, while services like media streaming can take time to solve legal issues around rights to exhibit material in different countries. In these cases, we often see a lag of 5-10 years at most, assuming the technology survives to maturity.
In most cases, if there’s a market for a technology, there’ll be someone standing in line to sell it. However, some can prove more tricky than others. The ballpoint pen is one example of a technology that most of us would consider quaint to the point of mediocrity. However, despite producing over 80% of the world’s ballpoint pens, China was unable to produce the entire pen domestically. Chinese manufactured ballpoint tips performed poorly, with scratchy writing as the result. This attracted the notice of government officials, which resulted in a push to improve the indigenous ballpoint technology. In 2017, they succeeded, producing high-quality ballpoint pens for the first time.
The secrets to creating just the right steel, and manipulating it into a smooth rolling ball just right for writing, were complex and manifold. The Japanese, German, and Swiss companies that supplied China with ballpoint tips made a healthy profit from the trade. Sharing the inside knowledge on how it’s done would only seek to destroy their own business. Thus, China had to go it alone, taking 5 years to solve the problem.
There was little drive for pen manufacturers to improve their product; the Chinese consumer was more focused on price than quality. Once the government made it a point of national pride, things shifted. For jet engines, however, it’s somewhat of a different story.
Most of us will have a hazy idea of how radar works to detect aircraft by listening for reflected radio waves. And we’ll probably also know that while radar can detect aircraft, it’s not the most efficient or useful tool in the hands of an air traffic controller. Aircraft carry transponders so that those on the ground can have a clearer picture of the skies, as each one reports its identity, altitude, and position. [Yeo Kheng Meng] was lucky enough to secure a non-functioning aircraft transponder and do a teardown, and his write-up makes for interesting reading as he explains their operation before diving into the hardware.
The 1978 and 1979 date codes on the various integrated circuits and transistors identify it as having been made in 1979, so not having a CPU is not entirely unsurprising given its age. Instead this is a straightforward device that responds to pulse lengths of different timings with sequential bursts of data.
[Yeo Kheng] is mystified by the RF strip and associated components, which look to us like a typical crystal oscillator and frequency multiplier strip from that era, along with some screened boxes that probably contain cavity filters and given that there is also a high voltage power supply present, a tube RF power amplifier. GHz-capable semiconductors were quite exotic in the 1970s, while high-frequency tubes had by then a long history.
It’s evident that the tech behind aircraft transponders has moved on since this unit was built, but one thing’s certain. Hackers in 1978 would have had to go to a lot of work to listen to them and interpret the results, while here in the 21st century it’s something we do routinely.
Bacon and eggs, chocolate and peanut butter, salt and pepper; some things just go together. You’d think that a mashup of an airplane and a helicopter would be great, right? The Fairey Rotodyne was just such a thing from the late 1950s and while it looked to be the wave of the future, it never took off — at least, not in the business sense at least. [Mustard] has an excellent video about the machine including some flight footage and explains why it failed to take over the aviation market. You can watch the video below.
While it does look like a helicopter mated with an airplane, it’s actually a bit different. The rotor isn’t normally powered at all. However, it does turn in forward flight and generates about half the lift the plane needs. That explains the stubby wings. The topside rotor has small jets at the tips that can be used during vertical take off, landing, and hovering modes.
For its time, it was fast and efficient, especially compared to contemporary helicopters. This type of plane was known as an autogyro and actually appeared in the 1930s as a safety mechanism since an autogyro can land in an autorotation mode.
According to the video, the noisy tip jets and production delays killed the beast. There was only one prototype built, but there was something we found very attractive about it. There have been, of course, other autogyros. British, German, Japanese, and Russian military have used autogyros at one time or another. The United States Postal Service was known to employ at least one.
Even today, there are about a thousand autogyros used by different military and police organizations. They are cheaper than a helicopter to buy and fly. Sadly, though, it doesn’t look like autogyros will ever become a common sight. Like an airship, they seem like a callback to an earlier time when you have a chance to spot one.
You’ve probably heard of the brave pilots, the so-called ‘few’, that took to the air in their Supermarine Spitfires and saved the day during the Battle of Britain. It’s a story that contains a lot of truth, but as is so often the case, it masks a story with a bit more complexity. Those pilots did scramble across the airfields of Southern England back in the summer of 1940, but more of them went into battle behind the controls of a Hawker Hurricane than its more glamorous stablemate.
The Hurricane might have been eclipsed by the Spitfire in the public’s eye, but not for [Marius Taciuc], who’s made a fully-functional RC model of one. Normally that wouldn’t be worthy of our attention, but in this case he’s employed a rather fascinating construction technique. He’s recreated the doped-fabric skin of the original by 3D-printing the frame of the aircraft and covering it in heat-shrink film, making this a very rare bird indeed.
The video below takes us through the steps including the development of the frame in a CAD package based on a tracing of a 2D aircraft picture, fitting the film, and finally attempts at flight that are unfortunately foiled by inappropriate wheel choice. But the short flight and crash does demonstrate that this construction method is durable, which leads on to our interest in it. While it evidently makes a functional aircraft, there are other applications that could benefit from such a lightweight and strong combination of materials.
It’s fair to say that 2019 has not been a good year for the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, as its new 737 MAX aircraft has been revealed to contain a software fault that could cause the aircraft to enter a dive and crash. Now stories are circulating of another issue with the 737, some of the so-called “Pickle forks” in the earlier 737NG aircraft have been found to develop cracks.
It’s a concerning story and there are myriad theories surrounding its origin but it should also have a reassuring angle: the painstaking system of maintenance checks that underpins the aviation industry has worked as intended. This problem has been identified before any catastrophic failures have occurred. It’s not the story Boeing needs at the moment, but they and the regulators will no doubt be working hard to produce a new design and ensure that it is fitted to aircraft.
The Role of the Pickle Fork
For those of us who do not work in aviation though it presents a question: what on earth is a pickle fork? The coverage of the story tells us it’s something to do with attaching the wing to the fuselage, but without a handy 737 to open up and take a look at we’re none the wiser.
Fortunately there’s a comprehensive description of one along with a review of wing attachment technologies from Boeing themselves, and it can be found in one of their patents. US9399508B2 is concerned with an active suspension system for wing-fuselage mounts and is a fascinating read in itself, but the part we are concerned with is a description of existing wing fixtures on page 12 of the patent PDF.
The pickle fork is an assembly so named because of its resemblance to the kitchen utensil, which attaches firmly to each side of the fuselage and has two prongs that extend below it where they are attached to the wing spar.
For the curious engineer with no aviation experience the question is further answered by the patent’s figure 2, which provides a handy cross-section. The other wing attachment they discuss involves the use of pins, leading to the point of the patented invention. Conventional wing fixings transmit the forces from the wing to the fuselage as a rigid unit, requiring the fuselage to be substantial enough to handle those forces and presenting a problem for designers of larger aircraft. The active suspension system is designed to mitigate this, and we’d be fascinated to hear from any readers in the comments who might be able to tell us more.
We think it’s empowering that a science-minded general public can look more deeply at a component singled out in a news report by digging into the explanation in the Boeing patent. We don’t envy the Boeing engineers in their task as they work to produce a replacement, and we hope to hear of their solution as it appears.