The Mark 14 Torpedo — When Just About Everything Goes Wrong, Even The Testing

I am a fan of the saying that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. After all, humans have been building things for a number of centuries and we should learn from the engineers of the past. While you can learn a lot studying successes, sometimes — maybe even most of the time — we learn more from studying failure. The US Navy’s Mark 14 torpedo certainly has a lot to teach us.

The start of the story was the WWI-era Mark 10 torpedo which was fine for its day, but with faster destroyers and some additional data about how to best sink enemy ships it seemed necessary to build a new torpedo that would be faster, carry more explosive charge, and use a new method of detonation. Work started in 1931 with a $143,000 budget which may sound laughable today, but that was a lot of coin in the 1930s. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $2.5 million.

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Poor Maintenance Could Have Led To Fatal B-17 Crash

In October the Nine-O-Nine, a fully restored Boeing B-17G bomber owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, crashed with thirteen people on board. After landing hard and skidding into the de-icing tanks at the Bradley International Airport, all but the tail and port wing of the 74 year old WWII aircraft was destroyed. Seven lives were lost in the accident, including that of Pilot Ernest “Mac” McCauley, who was regarded as one of the most experienced B-17 pilots in the world.

While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation is still ongoing and hasn’t made a final determination as to what ultimately brought down the Nine-O-Nine, enough serious maintenance issues were uncovered while examining the wreckage that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided to rescind the Collings Foundation’s license to conduct any more paid flights on their remaining WWII aircraft. While many have spoken out in support of these “living history” flights, the FAA says they must be conducted in such a way that they don’t hinder the safety of other air traffic.

With the vast majority of the B-17’s airframe gone, the NTSB investigation has focused on the four 1,200 horsepower Wright R-1820 “Cyclone” engines recovered from the crash site. Investigators found that hastily attempted repairs to engine number 4, which is believed to have failed in-flight, were actually hindering normal operation:

Regarding engine 4, to prevent the magneto “P” leads from separating from the
magnetos, someone had attempted to rig the magneto leads in place with safety wire.

Inspection and testing of engine 4 left magneto revealed the movement of the safety-wired lead caused grounding to the case, which rendered the magneto lead inoperative.

Further, all of the spark plugs in the number 3 and 4 engines were found to be fouled and had electrode gaps that were out of tolerance. From an examination of the aircraft’s maintenance records, it was also learned that an arcing and burned wire had been replaced without any investigative steps taken to find what caused the failure to begin with.

With basic maintenance tasks either not being performed or at least done incorrectly, the FAA has called into question the culture of safety at the Collings Foundation. The paper is careful not to directly accuse the Foundation or any of its staff with outright negligence, but the implication seems clear.

The loss of Nine-O-Nine hit especially close to home for Hackaday. Just a month prior to the crash we had the opportunity to tour the aircraft, and came away with a newfound respect for not only those who designed and built the iconic bomber but the brave young men who flew it. Losing such a rare and historically significant aircraft and its crew was already a tragedy, but to find that negligence may be to blame is truly inexcusable.

A Virtual Tour Of The B-17

The Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” is arguably the most recognizable aircraft of the Second World War. Made infamous by the daring daylight strategic bombing runs they carried out over Germany, more than 12,000 of these four-engined bombers were produced between 1939 and 1945. Thanks to the plane’s renowned survivability in battle, approximately 60% of them made it through the war and returned home to the United States, only to be rounded up in so-called “boneyards” where they were ultimately cut up and sold as scrap. Today there are fewer than 50 intact Boeing B-17s left in the world, and of those, only 11 remain airworthy.

One of them is Nine-O-Nine, a B-17G built in April 7, 1945. This particular aircraft was built too late to see any combat, although in the 1950s she was fitted with various instruments and exposed to three separate nuclear blasts for research purposes. It’s actually not the real Nine-O-Nine either, the original was scrapped after it completed eighteen bombing runs over Berlin. Without a combat record of its own, this bomber was painted to look like the real Nine-O-Nine in honor of its incredible service record of never losing a crewman.

Since 1986, Nine-O-Nine has been owned by the Collings Foundation, who operate her as a living history exhibit. The bomber flies around the United States with an entourage of similarly iconic WWII aircraft as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, stopping by various airports and giving the public a chance to climb aboard and see the pinnacle of mid-1940s strategic bombing technology. History buffs with suitably deep pockets can even book a seat on one of the scheduled 30-minute flights that take place at every stop on the Tour.

I was lucky enough to have the The Wings of Freedom Tour pass through my area recently, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience this incredible aircraft first hand. The fact that I’m equal parts a coward and miser kept me from taking a ride aboard the 74 year old Nine-O-Nine, at least for now, but I made sure to take plenty of pictures from inside this lovingly restored B-17G while it was safely on the ground.

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Hacking Shelters And Swimming Pools

How would you survive in a war-torn country, where bombs could potentially fall from the sky with only very short notice? And what if the bomb in question were The Bomb — a nuclear weapon? This concern is thankfully distant for most of us, but it wasn’t always so. Only 75 years ago, bombs were raining down on England, and until much more recently the threat of global thermonuclear war was encouraging school kids to “duck and cover”. How do you protect people in these situations?

The answers, naturally, depend on the conditions at hand. In Britain before the war, money was scarce and many houses didn’t have basements or yards that were large enough to build a family-sized bomb shelter in, and they had to improvise. In Cold War America, building bomb shelters ended up as a boon for the swimming pool construction industry. In both cases, bomb shelters proved to be a test of engineering ingenuity and DIY gumption, attempting to save lives in the face of difficult-to-quantify danger from above.

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Retrotechtacular: Balloons Go To War

To the average person, the application of balloon technology pretty much begins and ends with birthday parties. The Hackaday reader might be able to expand on that a bit, as we’ve covered several projects that have lofted various bits of equipment into the stratosphere courtesy of a high-altitude balloons. But even that is a relatively minor distinction. They might be bigger than their multicolored brethren, but it’s still easy for a modern observer to write them off as trivial.

But during the 1940’s, they were important pieces of wartime technology. While powered aircraft such as fighters and bombers were obviously more vital to the larger war effort, balloons still had numerous defensive and reconnaissance applications. They were useful enough that the United States Navy produced a training film entitled History of Balloons which takes viewers through the early days of manned ballooning. Examples of how the core technology developed and matured over time is intermixed with footage of balloons being used in both the First and Second World Wars, and parallels are drawn to show how those early pioneers influenced contemporary designs.

Even when the film was produced in 1944, balloons were an old technology. The timeline in the video starts all the way back in 1783 with the first piloted hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris, and then quickly covers iterative advancements to ballooning made into the 1800’s. As was common in training films from this era, the various “reenactments” are cartoons complete with comic narration in the style of W.C. Fields which were designed to be entertaining and memorable to the target audience of young men.

While the style might seem a little strange to modern audiences, there’s plenty of fascinating information packed within the film’s half-hour run time. The rapid advancements to ballooning between 1800 and the First World War are detailed, including the various instruments developed for determining important information such as altitude and rate of climb. The film also explains how some of the core aspects of manned ballooning, like the gradual release of ballast or the fact that a deflated balloon doubles as a rudimentary parachute in an emergency, were discovered quite by accident.

When the film works its way to the contemporary era, we are shown the process of filling Naval balloons with hydrogen and preparing them for flight. The film also talks at length about the so-called “barrage balloons” which were used in both World Wars. Including a rather dastardly advancement which added mines to the balloon’s tethers to destroy aircraft unlucky enough to get in their way.

This period in human history saw incredible technological advancements, and films such as these which were created during and immediately after the Second World War provide an invaluable look at cutting edge technology from a bygone era. One wonders what the alternative might be for future generations looking back on the technology of today.

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Put An Arduino Enigma In Your Pocket

The German Enigma device has always been a fascinating gadget for hackers. We’ve seen various replicas and emulators created over the years, and it was recently even the subject of our weekly Hack Chat. But if you think about it it’s not really a surprise; the Enigma has the perfect blend of historical significance and engineering wizardry, with a healthy dash of mystery thrown in. Why do the bad guys always have the coolest toys?

If you’ve ever wanted your own little Enigma replica to explore, [Mark Culross] has put together a project which makes it easier than ever. In fact, it’s so straightforward that some of you reading this post will probably be able to put one together as soon as you’ve read this post from stuff you already have lying around in the parts bin. All you need is an Arduino Uno, an Adafruit 2.8″ TFT Touch Shield, and a penchant for World War II technology.

Thanks to the relatively high-resolution touch screen, [Mark] was able to develop a user interface for his Enigma that really gives you a feel for how the original machine worked. Obviously it’s considerably simplified from the real-world version, but using a stylus to tap the rotors you want to spin or the wires you want plugged in makes for a more immersive experience than many of the previous attempts we’ve seen. With a tap you’re even able to load historical machine configurations, such as how the Enigma aboard the submarine U-262 was configured when the Allies intercepted its encoded messages in 1942.

[Mark] says this project was always about developing the software, and he leaves the actual hardware implementation as an exercise for the user. Just to play around with the software it’s enough to hook up an Arduino and the touch screen, but we’d love to see somebody really take the idea and run with it. Add some batteries, a charging circuit, and put it all in a little wooden box for that authentic Enigma look. Can’t forget that iconic wrinkle finish paint, either.

Over the years, we’ve seen replica Enigma machines in all shapes and sizes. From ones you could mount on your wrist, to full size replicas using modern components. We’ve even seen one variation that you can print out on a couple of sheets of paper. The parade of recreations shows no sign of stopping, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Operation Backfire: Witness To The Rocket Age

As the prospects for Germany during the Second World War began to look increasingly grim, the Nazi war machine largely pinned their hopes on a number of high-tech “superweapons” they had in development. Ranging from upgraded versions of their already devastatingly effective U-Boats to tanks large enough to rival small ships, the projects ran the gamut from practical to fanciful. After the fall of Berlin there was a mad scramble by the Allied forces to get into what was left of Germany’s secretive development facilities, with each country hoping to recover as much of this revolutionary technology for themselves as possible.

V-2 launch during Operation Backfire

One of the most coveted prizes was the Aggregat 4 (A4) rocket. Better known to the Allies as the V-2, it was the world’s first liquid fueled guided ballistic missile and the first man-made object to reach space. Most of this technology, and a large number of the engineers who designed it, ended up in the hands of the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. This influx of practical rocketry experience helped kick start the US space program, and its influence could be seen all the way up to the Apollo program. The Soviet Union also captured V-2 hardware and production facilities, which subsequently influenced the design of their early rocket designs as well. In many ways, the V-2 rocket was the spark that started the Space Race between the two countries.

With the United States and Soviet Union taking the majority of V-2 hardware and personnel, little was left for the British. Accordingly their program, known as Operation Backfire, ended up being much smaller in scope. Rather than trying to bring V-2 hardware back to Britain, they decided to learn as much as they could about it in Germany from the men who used it in combat. This study of the rocket and the soldiers who operated it remains the most detailed account of how the weapon functioned, and provides a fascinating look at the incredible effort Germany was willing to expend for just one of their “superweapons”.

In addition to a five volume written report on the V-2 rocket, the British Army Kinematograph Service produced “The German A.4 Rocket”, a 40 minute film which shows how a V-2 was assembled, transported, and ultimately launched. Though they are operating under the direction of the British government, the German soldiers appear in the film wearing their own uniforms, which gives the documentary a surreal feeling. It could easily be mistaken for actual wartime footage, but these rockets weren’t aimed at London. They were being fired to serve as a historical record of the birth of modern rocketry.

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