A Century in Review - The 1950s: Jets Take Over

 - October 11, 2007, 6:51 AM

For aviation, the spirit of the 1950s could be said to have begun with Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the “sound barrier” in Glamorous Glennis, a rocket-powered Bell X-1, on Oct. 14, 1947. The World War that had dominated the first half of the 1940s was receding in memory, and mankind’s focus on ascending from the rubble was illustrated clearly by the advances in aviation. Yeager’s flight symbolized the efforts that would drive the 1950s, and the jet engine was to shape that decade more than any other technology.

With its straight but suitably thin wings, upright vertical tail and plump fuselage, the X-1 did not look altogether the part for the first airplane to exceed Mach 1. But on that fall day from some 42,000 feet above the dry lakebeds of the Mojave Desert in Calif., a man-made sonic boom by an airplane that held together rent the air asunder for the first time. Part of the legend of that day is that Yeager was barely fit to make the flight, having fallen and cracked a rib two days earlier. As he clambered down from the B-29 mother ship’s bomb bay and shoehorned himself into the X-1’s cramped cockpit, he was in pain and carrying part of a broom handle that would allow him, despite his injuries, to secure the cockpit hatch once inside.

There was great mystique surrounding the “sound barrier,” and Yeager’s aw-shucks, “let’s get it over with” West Virginia drawl only added to it. Courageous pilots had perished at “the wall,” and mankind was faced once again with real anxiety about whether the human frame could tolerate the speeds put within reach by technology–in this case jet or rocket propulsion. Such a notion today seems no less quaint than the fears that accompanied the advent of the horseless carriage; people then were afraid that the human body could probably not withstand velocities of more than 25 mph.

But these fears about the suitability of the human frame to high-speed flight were real. In an accident unknown to the outside world at the time, chief MiG test pilot Alexei Grinchik died in May 1946 after losing control of the MiG-9 prototype. Four months later, there was no secrecy surrounding the death of Geoffrey de Havilland (son of the founder of the famed airplane manufacturer and its chief test pilot) when the tailless, swept-wing DH.108 research aircraft he was flying broke up in flight while pushing against the wall. Mysterious anomalies such as control reversal greeted pilots trying to penetrate the wall, and it took much trial and error by pilots and engineers to find a way through. Part of the problem at first was that airplane structures were just not strong enough to handle the loads of transonic flight, and the mystery of control reversal was traced to distortion of the airframe with application of flight controls, giving the effect of reversal.

The Jet Race
Britain and Germany had led the development of jet aircraft during World War II, and the defeat of Germany placed Britain in the lead with the Gloster Meteor (which set world speed records of 606 mph in late 1945 and 615 mph 10 months later) and de Havilland Vampire fighters. This brief reign fell to a U.S. Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star that logged 623 mph in June 1947 near Muroc, Calif. (now Edwards AFB). From 1948 to 1955 the world airspeed record for airplanes that took off under the power of their own air-breathing engines (as opposed to being air-launched and rocket-powered, á la X-1) fell to the North American F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre, except for three marks by the British (two by Hawker Hunters and one by a Supermarine Swift) in 1953 before the F-100 had hit its stride. The British made the next big leap with the Fairey Delta 2, which raised the ante from the F-100C’s 822 mph (set in August 1955) to 1,132 mph in March 1956. In December the following year the McDonnell F-101A Voodoo pushed it to 1,207 mph, and in May 1958 the F-104A Starfighter raised it to a blistering 1,404 mph. From then on, it became a to-and-fro between the Americans and the Russians, beginning with the Sukhoi E-66’s 1,483 mph in October 1959 and, 10 days before Christmas that year, 1,525 mph by the Convair F-106A Delta Dart.

In two decades, then, the airspeed record for self-launching airplanes had more than tripled, from the Messerschmitt Bf-109R’s 469 mph in 1939 to the Delta Dart’s 1,525 mph in 1959.

Air-launched research aircraft built on the achievement of the X-1, which eventually reached Mach 1.46. Yeager took the X-1A to Mach 2.44 in December 1953, spurred to regain the lead set by Scott Crossfield in the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, which had reached Mach 1.88 (1,238 mph at 66,000 feet) in August 1951 and was first to break Mach 2 in November 1953.

Although the “sound barrier” had been pushed aside, flying these winged rocket ships was still a decidedly risky business. The X-1 was apt to explode (blamed on gasket flaws in the propulsion system), and the Skyrocket had a nasty tendency to yaw while supersonic. During his foray to Mach 2.44, Yeager lost control of the X-1A and rode it through a 50,000-foot vertical tumble before regaining control and landing. Milburn Apt, another test pilot, was not so fortunate when disaster befell him in the Bell X-2. By taking the airplane to Mach 3.2 in September 1956 he became the first person to exceed 2,000 mph, a distinction he did not live to enjoy because on the same flight the X-2 went out of control and crashed from high altitude.

While the military was rapidly moving the frontiers of performance, the airline passenger was also beginning to enjoy the fruits of the jet engine and the same aerodynamics that were paying off for the armed services. The mid-1950s were the heyday of the majestic piston propliners that took World War II transport technology to its conclusion. The world’s first turbine-powered airliner, the Vickers Viscount, powered by four Rolls-Royce Dart turboprops, first flew in 1948 and entered passenger service in April 1953–a year after BOAC received its first Comet 1s. Jetliners clipped the hopes of the turboprop designers for long-distance travel, but the Russians took the breed to its peak with the Tupolev Tu-114. This large swept-wing airplane, derived from the Tu-95 Bear bomber, had four 14,800-shp Kuznetsov turboprops driving massive contrarotating propellers, and it could carry a couple of hundred passengers 4,800 nm at 415 knots.

The First Jetliner
Much has been written about the commercial pressures and structural frailties behind the failure of the de Havilland Comet 1. While it was the first pure jetliner, unfortunately it is equally remembered for being fatally flawed. A small airplane with seating for just 36 passengers, the Comet first flew in 1949 and was powered by four de Havilland Ghost turbojets buried in the wing roots. It was a big hit when it entered service in May 1952 on the London-Johannesburg route, but in January 1954 a Comet broke up at 30,000 feet after takeoff from Rome. Its wreckage fell into the Mediterranean and, after a massive recovery operation, investigation of this and a similar loss four months later revealed structural weakness in the corner of the square window frames. The Comet was grounded, the words “explosive decompression” entered the traveling public’s lexicon, and by the time the airplane’s frailty had been discovered and rectified, Britain’s lead in the jetliner race remained on the seabed of the Mediterranean.

The new and improved de Havilland jetliner–the 72-seat DH.106 Comet 4, powered by four Rolls-Royce Avons–arrived in October 1958, just in time for BOAC to inaugurate the first transatlantic jetliner service, but in terms of orders the airlines had already favored the larger Boeing 707 and DC-8, both of which introduced greater seating capacity and a configuration that slung their four jet engines in pods beneath the wings. Boeing put all it had learned about swept wings and pod-mounted engines with the 1947 B-47 and the 1952 B-52 bombers into its jetliner, which started life as the Model 367-80, better known simply as the Dash 80. (The number 367 threw competitors off the scent because the model number of Boeing’s last propliner, the B-29-based Stratocruiser, had been 377.)

In the incessant debate over the years about state subsidies of civil aircraft manufacturing, Americans like to point to the government aid that established Airbus, while Europeans are fond of recalling how much government money
went into Boeing’s military designs, and how that know-how was subsequently incorporated into the company’s successful jetliners. Regardless of such arguments, the 707 and DC-8 allowed the airlines to turn a profit operating jetliners, and everything else taken for granted about the airlines since has been built on the success of that economic model.

The early long-range jetliners were marginally powered, and the thick black smoke that trailed their raucous departures, while evocative of an exciting new era, made them environmental hoodlums by today’s standards. But that has usually been the case with new fossil-fuel-burning technology, and the advent of the turbofan in the 1960s cleaned up aviation’s new act significantly.

France, with the 60-seat Sud Aviation Caravelle’s first flight in 1955, introduced rear engine placement and a cruciform tail (as well as distinctive triangular cabin windows downwind from the nose section and cockpit, which were lifted directly from the Comet). The original short-range twinjet’s pair of tail-mounted Rolls-Royce Avons left an uncluttered wing, and their combustion and noise were far from the fuel tanks and passengers, respectively. The configuration was later adopted by the T-tail 727, DC-9, BAC 1-11, Vickers VC10, Hawker Siddeley Trident and Russian Tupolev jetliners, not to mention nearly all business jets.

Turbines in Pinstripes
Corporate aviation in the 1950s was still relying largely on surplus military equipment, such as civilianized Douglas C-47/DC-3s or Dragons, and converted Lockheed Lodestars and Douglas A-26s. In the mid-1950s, small general aviation aircraft such as the Cessna 310 and Aero Commander 500 appealed to business fliers, but it was not until August 1958 that Grumman flew the Gulfstream G-159, the first machine to result from recognition that turbine engines belonged on a purpose-designed business aircraft. Powered by a pair of the same Rolls-Royce Dart turboprops that powered the first turbine airliner, the “Gulfstream” came about because it did not escape Grumman’s notice that corporations were buying Fokker F.27 twin-turboprop airliners for their own use. The Long Island-headquartered “Grumman Iron Works,” famous for its amphibians and carrier-based ’Cats but looking to diversify in the face of declining military spending, saw a market for a business turboprop and delivered the first Gulfstream G-159 in 1959 to Sinclair Refining. What later became known as the Gulfstream I sold for $845,000, considerably more than the price tag for the ex-military equipment that corporations had thus far flown.

But the whistling Grumman clearly ushered in the future of business aviation, offering a cruise speed of more than 300 knots and almost 2,000 nm of range. About 200 GIs had been built by the time production ceased in 1969, laying the foundations for today’s line of Gulfstream business jets.

The first business jet appeared at the same time, when Timken Roller Bearing of Canton, Ohio, put a French Morane-Saulnier MS.760 Paris into corporate service in 1958. Others, more recognizable as business jets by today’s standards, followed in the 1960s.