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Military Aviation: Key Innovations

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |


The Jet Engine

By the end of the Second World War, piston engines could no longer keep up with advances in aircraft design; propellers simply wouldn't function effectively at speeds approaching 500 mph. Enter the jet engine, which ignites a mixture of fuel and compressed air to create explosions that generate thrust. The concept had actually occurred to designers even before the First World War, but Britain's Frank Whittle and Germany's Ernst Heinkel made it a reality. Germany quickly became the front-runner, producing the revolutionary twin-jet Me-262 fighter, which had a maximum speed of over 550 mph, 100 mph faster than the fastest Allied plane. The piston engine had clearly had its day.

Supersonic Flight

With the jet engine setting a new standard for speed, the next hurdle for warplane designers to overcome was the sound barrier. The problem they faced was that as the aircraft approached the speed of sound, shock waves formed along the airplane's wings and tail, disturbing the airflow and preventing the plane's control surfaces from operating effectively. Airplanes would simply lose control until they slowed down (or broke apart). To overcome this problem, aircraft designers built planes with all-moving tail pieces that presented more surface area to the oncoming airflow. The change allowed the pilots to better retain control as they approached supersonic speeds. In 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the experimental, bullet-shaped Bell X-1, which incorporated the all-moving tail. This technology, as well as a coke-bottle shaped fuselage that reduced the severity of shock waves as the plane approached the sound barrier, became standard-issue for modern supersonic warplanes.

The Helicopter

In addition to powering high-speed fighters, jet engines also made the modern attack helicopter possible. Early helicopters, while useful for carrying out valuable tasks such as evacuating wounded soldiers, used heavy, relatively inefficient piston engines that limited their payloads. With jet engines, designers could build helicopters that would carry guns, rockets and troops into combat. The classic design was the Bell AH-1 Cobra, a wasp-like gunship helicopter that first saw combat in Vietnam and is still in service today.

Targeting Systems

As fighter aircraft became faster and faster, hitting one using a WWII-type gunsight became practically impossible. The Korean War-era North American F-86 Sabre solved the problem by incorporating a radar gunsight, which used a radar antenna in the Sabre's nose to obtain the range to the target. The latest fighters now incorporate helmet-mounted targeting systems, which use infrared lights to automatically follow the pilot's head movements as he tracks his targets.

The Surface-to-Air Missile

First designed by Germany during the closing months of the Second World War, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) came into their own in the following decades. The increasing speed and altitude capabilities of jet attack aircraft meant that antiaircraft guns could no longer effectively defending their airspace. SAMs have been developed in an incredible variety of sizes and packages, from radar-guided, truck-mounted missiles such as the Russian SA-10 "Grumble," to heat-seeking systems like the American Stinger, which can be carried and operated by a single soldier. SAMs took a heavy toll on U.S. aircraft in Vietnam, almost crippled the Israeli Air Force in 1973, and still present one of the greatest threats to the modern warplane.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |


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When to Watch

Parts One and Two air: Wed, Nov. 8th, 9-11pm
Parts Three and Four air: Wed, Nov. 15, 9-11pm

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