“That’s not a plane, it’s a 3 plane formation” that’s what General Curtis LeMay said of the plans for the WS-110 supersonic replacement for the B-52 back in 1954.
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Back in the early 1950s, the B-52 was USAF’s main nuclear delivery platform but with the increasing sophistication of the Soviet defences, a new supersonic nuclear bomber was called for which would stretch the limits of the technology to beyond what was thought possible just a few years before.
The plane that would emerge from the WS-110 design process was the XB-70 Valkyrie. It would be one of the biggest in the world and capable of cruising at Mach 3, something which no aircraft of this type is capable of doing even today. It would also fly at 77,000 feet – 23,500 meters, have a range of 4,280 miles or 6,900 km and carry up to 14 nuclear weapons.
The problem with large planes and payloads is the need for powerful engines which in turn require a lot of fuel which also has to be carried making the plane heavier and reducing the available payload, so in the 40’s and 50’s alternative methods of propulsion were researched.
Nuclear was seriously considered as a power source for jet engines. A nuclear reactor would heat the air in place of jet fuel and could run for weeks or months without the need for refuelling.
But problems with the extra weight of the radiation shielding required for the crew and the low thrust output from early engine designs meant that it became unpractical. Also if a nuclear-powered plane crashed it would be a much bigger problem than a conventional jet due to the radioactive contamination.
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Also during in the 1950’s, a new type of jet fuel was being developed called high energy fuel or Zip fuel. This could deliver up to 40% more energy for the same weight. This was achieved by adding boron, a high energy, low mass element.
The problem with this is that it made both the fuel and the exhaust toxic. When the Zip fuel was burned in the engines it produced solids that were sticky, corrosive and highly abrasive and created a lot of black smoke which could reveal the position of the plane even at high altitude. These solids built up on the turbine blades making them less efficient and in some case causing the engines to fail completely.
One method get around these issues was to use it in afterburners as this didn’t affect the engine itself. This would be used for the quick dash up to supersonic speeds over enemy territory whilst using normal jet fuel for the rest of the journey.
This and the high cost of making the Zip fuel and the inability to overcome the engine damage it caused meant that it also went the same way as the Nuclear powered engines and by 1959 Zip fuels were dropped too.
Both the Nuclear engines and the Zip fuels were proposed for the WS-110 before a new higher density type of conventional jet fuel called JP-6 was developed.
To overcome the extra fuel needed, the North American Aviation’s WS-110 design had “floating panels” at the end of the wings which were essentially huge fuel tanks, these would have been jettisoned when it went to supersonic leaving much shorter trapezoid shaped wings.
Another Place by Frank Dorittke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/)