We were all glued to our screens for a moment a few weeks ago, watching the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch dual-fuselage space launch platform aircraft make its first flight. The six-engined aircraft represents an impressive technical feat by any standard, and with a wingspan of 385 ft (117 m) and payload weight of 550,000 lb (250 t), is touted as the largest ever flown.
Our own Brian Benchoff took a look at the possibility of hauling more mundane cargo as an alternative (and possibly more popular) use of its lifting capabilities. And in doing so mentioned that “by most measure that matter” this is the largest aircraft ever built. There are several contenders for the title of largest aircraft that depend upon different statistics, so which one really is the largest? Sometimes it’s not as clear as you’d think, but finding out leads us into a fascinating review of some unusual aeronautical engineering.
When you think of unconventional aircraft, flying wings have had plenty of time in the sun over the last few decades. With striking designs like the B-2 Spirit and F-117A Nighthawk on the flight line, it’s no surprise. The lifting body never really caught on, however, and it languishes in ignominy to this day. Despite their obscurity, [rctestflight] decided to 3D print a few lifting bodies for himself and take them out for a field test (YouTube video, embedded below).
Most aircraft have a body designed with low drag, and wings designed to provide lift. Lifting body aircraft focus the body design on providing that lift and often have no real wing to the design, needing only control surfaces to compliment the body. For this project, several different designs were constructed, with the craft being drop-launched from a multirotor at significant altitude. Initial tests were hamstrung by stability problems, both due to center of gravity issues and uncertain aerodynamic phenomena. The early designs were particularly prone to suddenly entering an unrecoverable flat spin. Later modifications included the addition of further stabilizers, which helped performance somewhat.
3D printing is a great way to experiment with aerodynamic phenomena, as it’s easy to create all manner of complicated geometries to tinker with. [rctestflight] has done solid work developing a basic craft, and we’d love to see the work continue with powered tests and more development. If flying wings are more your jam, though, you can 3D print those too. Video after the break.
Eleven years ago, the Airbus A380 entered commercial service with Singapore Airlines. In the time since then it has become the queen of the skies. It’s a double-decker airliner, capable of flying 550 passengers eight thousand nautical miles. Some configurations of the A380 included private suites. Some had a shower. This is the epitome of luxury, a dream of flying with long-stemmed glasses, a movie, and a pleasant dream in mid-air.
Now, after the cancellation of A380 orders by Emirates, Airbus has announced it will end production of this massive, massive plane. No, it’s not the last flight of the Concorde, but it is the beginning of the end of an era. The biggest and most impressive planes just aren’t economical; it’s possible to fly three 787s across the globe for a single flight of an A380. The skies won’t fall silent, but soon the A380 will be no more.
Towards the end of the Second World War, as the United States considered their options for a possible invasion of Japan, there was demand for a new fighter that could escort long range bombers on missions which could see them travel more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) without refueling. In response, North American Aviation created the F-82, which essentially took two of their immensely successful P-51 fighters and combined them on the same wing. The resulting plane, of which only 272 were built, ultimately set the world record for longest nonstop flight of a propeller-driven fighter at 8,129 km (5,051 mi) and ended up being the last piston engine fighter ordered by the United States Air Force.
The project provides a fascinating look at what it takes to not only return a 70+ year old ultra-rare aircraft to fully functional status, but do it in a responsible and historically accurate way. With only four other intact F-82’s in the world, replacement parts are obviously an exceptional rarity. The original parts used to rebuild this particular aircraft were sourced from literally all over the planet, piece by piece, in a process that started before [Tom] even purchased the plane itself.
In a way, the search for parts was aided by the unusual nature of the F-82, which has the outward appearance of being two standard P-51 fighters, but in fact utilizes a vast number of modified components. [Tom] would keep an eye out for parts being sold on the open market which their owners mysteriously discovered wouldn’t fit on a standard P-51. In some cases these “defective” P-51 parts ended up being intended for the Twin Mustang project, and would get added to the collection of parts that would eventually go into the XP-82 restoration.
For the parts that [Tom] couldn’t find, modern manufacturing techniques were sometimes called in. The twin layout of the aircraft meant the team occasionally had one component but was missing its counterpart. In these cases, the original component could be carefully measured and then recreated with either a CNC mill or 3D printed to be used as a die for pressing the parts out of metal. In this way the team was able to reap the benefits of modern production methods while still maintaining historical accuracy; important on an aircraft where even the colors of the wires used in the original electrical system have been researched and faithfully recreated.
Everyone’s heard of the “black box”. Officially known as the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), it’s a mandatory piece of equipment on commercial aircraft. The FDR is instrumental in investigating incidents or crashes, and is specifically designed to survive should the aircraft be destroyed. The search for the so-called “black box” often dominates the news cycle after the loss of a commercial aircraft; as finding it will almost certainly be necessary to determine the true cause of the accident. What you probably haven’t heard of is a Quick Access Recorder (QAR).
While it’s the best known, the FDR is not the only type of recording device used in aviation. The QAR could be thought of as the non-emergency alternative to the FDR. While retrieving data from the FDR usually means the worst has happened, the QAR is specifically designed to facilitate easy and regular access to flight data for research and maintenance purposes. Its data is stored on removable media and since the QAR is not expected to survive the loss of the aircraft it isn’t physically hardened. In fact, modern aircraft often use consumer-grade technology such as Compact Flash cards and USB flash drives as storage media in their QAR.
Through the wonders of eBay, I recently acquired a vintage Penny & Giles D50761 Quick Access Recorder. This was pulled out of an aircraft which had been in service with the now defunct airline, Air Toulouse International. Let’s crack open this relatively obscure piece of equipment and see just what goes into the hardware that airlines trust to help ensure their multi-million dollar aircraft are operating in peak condition.
A property of radio waves is that they tend to reflect off things. Metal surfaces in particular act as good reflectors, and by studying how these reflections work, it’s possible to achieve all manner of interesting feats. [destevez] decided to have some fun with reflections from local air traffic, and was kind enough to share the results.
The project centers around receiving 2.3 GHz signals from a local ham beacon that have been reflected by planes taking off from the Madrid-Barajas airport. The beacon was installed by a local ham, and transmits a CW idenfication and tone at 2 W of power.
In order to try and receive reflections from nearby aircraft, [destevez] put together a simple but ingenious setup.
A LimeSDR radio was used, connected to a 9 dB planar 2.4 GHz WiFi antenna. This was an intentional choice, as it has a wide radiation pattern which is useful for receiving reflections from odd angles. A car was positioned between the antenna and the beacon to avoid the direct signal overpowering reflected signals from aircraft.
Data was recorded, and then compared with ADS-B data on aircraft position and velocity, allowing recorded reflections to be matched to the flight paths of individual flights after the fact. It’s a great example of smart radio sleuthing using SDR and how to process such data. If you’re thirsty for more, check out this project to receive Russian weather sat images with an SDR.
Have you ever dreamed of flying, but lack the funds to buy your own airplane, the time to learn, or the whole hangar and airstrip thing? The answer might be in a class of ultralight aircraft called powered paragliders, which consist of a soft inflatable wing and a motor on your back. As you may have guessed, the motor is known as a paramotor, and it’s probably one of the simplest powered aircraft in existence. Usually little more than big propeller, a handheld throttle, and a gas engine.
But not always. The OpenPPG project aims to create a low-cost paramotor with electronics and motors intended for heavyweight multicopters. It provides thrust comparable to gas paramotors for 20 to 40 minutes of flight time, all while being cheaper and easier to maintain. The whole project is open source, so if you don’t want to buy one of their kits or assembled versions, you’re free to use and remix the design into a personal aircraft of your own creation.
It’s still going to cost for a few thousand USD to get a complete paraglider going, but at least you won’t need to pay hangar fees. Thanks to the design which utilizes carbon fiber plates and some clever hinges, the whole thing folds up into a easier to transport and store shape than traditional paramotors with one large propeller. Plus it doesn’t hurt that it looks a lot cooler.
Not only are the motors and speed controls borrowed from the world of quadcopters, but so is the physical layout. A traditional paramotor suffers from a torque issue, as the big propeller wants to twist the motor (and the human daring enough to strap it to his or her back) in the opposite direction. This effect is compensated for in traditional gas-powered paramotor by doing things like mounting the motor at an angle to produce an offset thrust. But like a quadcopter the OpenPPG uses counter-rotating propellers which counteract each others thrust, removing the torque placed on the pilot and simplifying design of the paraglider as a whole.