Friday, 23 March 2012

Biplane design could break the sound barrier

Biplane design could break the sound barrier

I've always said biplanes would have their day, but who would have thought they may be the answer to the future of supersonic flight?  A successor to the technological marvel that was Concorde is long overdue, and if it is to have two wings then so much the better!

It may not look like any biplane we are familiar with but the design that is suggested by MIT as mentioned in this article is basically a two-winged aircraft, which owes much of its layout to a 70-year-old concept.  Even back in the early days of aviation when biplanes were prevalent it seems that the theory of faster-than-sound flight was being explored.  At the time, though, technology was limited and the new-fangled monoplane was seen as the future of aircraft design.  The fastest biplane was, and remains, the 1938 Fiat CR.42DB (above) which had a top speed of 323mph.

Despite employing principles from as long ago as the 1930s the MIT design, whilst having shades of retro-futurism about it, is very much grounded in the 21st Century.  Although the idea of a "supersonic biplane" has the right ring to it, this is a particularly modern take on the layout.  So to end with and in keeping with the vintage feel of this blog here are some biplane airliners from the '20s and '30s which, while certainly not capable of exceeding the speed of sound, at least look like the sort of aircraft we would associate with double-winged aeroplanes.


The Armstrong Whitworth Argosy was Imperial Airways' (the precursor to British Airways) first multi-engined airliner, entering service in 1926.  Seven examples plied the European (and later the Empire links to South Africa and India) for ten years until 1936.  The luxury Croydon-Paris service was named the "Silver Wing" and boasted a bar with steward.  Seating was for twenty people and the cruising speed was a heady 90mph.

The Handley Page H.P.42 was introduced in 1930 to complement the Argosy and to extend Imperial Airways' long-distance routes.  Eight were built in all, 4 for the European flights and 4 for the Empire routes.  Capable of seating up to 24 passengers the H.P.42 enjoyed an enviable safety record - never losing a single life whilst in [civilian] service - unmatched by any other contemporary aircraft.  Its low cruising speed of 100mph may have had something to do with it; as one commentator of the time put it "it's as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar - and about as fast", adding that it had "built-in headwinds"!

The Short S.17 Kent was one of many early flying boat designs used by Imperial Airways on their Mediterranean routes during the 1920s and early 1930s, before the advent of the more well-known large monoplane Empire flying boats.  The four-engined Kent was a development of the three-engined Calcutta, designed to have a longer range and so eliminate the need to stop at Italy en route to Eygpt.  Only 3 were built (although a couple of land-based versions known as the Short Scylla, were also used on the European routes), capable of carrying 16 passengers at a cruising speed of 105mph.

Sadly none of these amazing aircraft made it through the Second World War (although they were not all lost to enemy action - three of the H.P.42s, for example, were destroyed in incidents where they were blown over or against other aircraft in strong winds).  An attempt to build a replica of an H.P.42 foundered a few years ago, so all that remain of these giants are photographs and cine footage.  But their legacy will live on, perhaps to find a new lease of life in this potential supersonic biplane of the future.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    Just a short message to say that our project to build a replica of the HP42 is still ongoing. Our PR campaign will be next year along with the opening of our new Imperial Airways museum. Please go to our team website at for details and visit our facebook page (search for 'Team Merlin - Aviation and Film') and like the page for more details too.


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