Paper models, photos and musings of a Paper Kosmonaut

01 March 2013

The little tragedy of the Miles M.52

Time for a little story.

It all happened in the first year after the 2nd world war. During the war, the military on both sides continuously developed faster aircraft that were capable of ever higher speeds, up to the point where propellers weren't enough any more. So both the Germans and the British started to develop the first crude jet engines. 
But even with propellers, planes seemed to lose all control above certain speeds and often crashed. These speeds appeared to have a connection with shock waves when approaching the speed of sound. The aircraft compressed those sound waves when diving at top speeds and the shock waves they produced shook the whole plane until it broke up in the sky. Also, there seemed to be a problem with steering at those high speeds. The elevator, or tail plane didn't seen to have any effect any more.
People spoke of a barrier where no one could breach through without dying.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was one of the first aircraft that suffered transonic troubles. (image: wikipedia)

More and a little surprise after the jump.

The sound barrier seemed to be a big problem. But some aviation technicians were determined to break that sound barrier. As soon as 1942, The U.S and the British started to work on experimental planes to try and go faster than the speed of sound. The British had the invention of engineer Frank Whittle to work with, the jet engine. They contracted aircraft manufacturer Miles to design and build a high speed research aircraft. The Americans tried their luck with rockets and gave Bell Aircraft the assignment to design the plane. Call it serendipity, but the British as well as the Americans came up with a very similar design. A bullet-shaped plane, with a flush cockpit and very thin straight wings. (The knowledge of swept wings was not yet available but the Germans did have some research going on in that sector.) Both planes were just about 8 or 9 meters long and also very light.

The Miles M.52 (image: Wikipedia)
The Bell X-1 being fuelled (image: NASA)
There also were differences. As said, the American plane, called the XS-1 (later just X-1), used a four-chambered, liquid fueled rocket engine for propulsion and the British Miles M.52 was planned to have a jet engine. Not just any jet engine but the first one with a reheater, or afterburner as it is more commonly known. This could increase the speed of the little plane considerably. The cockpit of the M.52 served as a spike for the air inlet of the engine and was as a whole detachable as some kind of escape pod. The X-1 had no escape system whatsoever. If the pilot would have bailed out through the small door in the side of the plane, he surely would have had himself cut into two pieces by the razor sharp wing. Pilots were not overly enthusiast with the XS-1. Especially not because of its flight characteristics in the transonic zone, the speeds that came close to Mach 1. The X-1 then would lose all its manoeuvrability and it was very hard to regain control. This was one of the outcomes of wind tunnel tests. The Americans puzzled to find what the problem was.

The British engineers already had dealt with that problem. It had to do with the tail planes of the aircraft. Until then, the rearmost part of the tail was movable to an upward and downward pointing  position. When the aircraft would reach Mach 1, the shock wave would render these surfaces useless because they were too small to have any effect on the almost supersonic air stream.
This problem was solved by making the tail plane movable as a whole. It now pivoted in its entirety and made the plane steerable again.

All-moving or Flying Tailplane (image:Wikipedia)

Now the war was over and the Brits thought it would be a good idea exchanging technicalities on their aircraft with the Americans, who agreed on that,  came, saw, and left with a wealth of new data. When it was time for the British to visit the Bell factory, their X-1 suddenly was too top-secret to reveal.

Not long thereafter, in late 1946, a newly elected British government in all its wisdom decided to cancel the M.52 project and destroy the prototype, which was close to finishing (something the British government later also did with the brilliant but ill-fated TSR2). Manufacturer Miles went broke not long after that.

When Miles went bankrupt, the plans and drawings of the M.52 were obtained by Vickers-Armstrong. They were ordered to test the aircraft again but with a scaled down radio-controlled model of the plane, to be launched over sea from under a Mosquito bomber. The first attempt resulted in an explosion of the rocket.
One day later, above the Mojave desert in California, a loud boom thundered through the sky. It was the Bell X-1 passing through the sound barrier into the history books with captain Chuck Yeager at the controls. He made it to Mach 1.2.

Yeager in his "Glamorous Glennis" over the Mojave desert. 
Note the diamond shockwaves in the rocket plume. (image: NASA)
A couple of weeks later, the British flew another Mosquito over the sea and launched another scaled down model of the M.52. This time, off it raced. It easily went past Mach 1 and, still accelerating, it disappeared in the distance, never to be found again.
This never happened.... (Image:
Were it not for its premature cancellation, I bet you the M.52 would have been the first aircraft that would have broken the sound barrier. 


So, I wanted to give the M.52 the credit it deserved in my eyes and so I made a display showing both the X-1 and the M.52 as paper models, in 1/72.
Sprung aus den Wolken!
While I wanted the X-1 to look more or less realistic, the M.52 is made to look a bit more like a legend, a flying unicorn, something magic. I used metallic paper and accentuated the inlet and outlet with aluminium tape. I also gave the canopy a chrome treatment and added a layer of gloss paint over the end result. I could have used decals to enhance the roundels but exactly the faded way they look now I think gives it that magical, untouchable feel. Both models are available from the downloads section of The X-1 is designed by Gary Pilsworth and the M.52 is the work of Dragos Cardmodels.

The cockpit also served as a air inlet spike.

The canopy was made from a very deep blue stagelight gel-filter, I ripped out of a sample booklet.

The exhaust pipe of the machine. Deep inside you can see some detailing.


The pitot tubes were made from sewing pins.

the canopy frame was made from very thin strips of aluminium sticky tape which I painted black.

This is how they hang on the wall. I turned them around so you can see their top sides.

In a couple of documentary TV-programs I have seen Charles Yeager boast about this tailplane like it being their own invention, maybe even something he and his team had come up with. Bell may have improved the design a little, but the invention of the all-moving tailplane was 100% British.
So I added one photo where I put a message of shame on the X-1, like people do these days with Shaming Animals, or Pet Shaming, to tag their animal that does bad stuff:

For those who cannot read the card, it says: " I stole my all-moving tail from the M.52"
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