Real Engineering

Many moons ago there was a TV programme called “Tomorrow’s World”, and I used to love it. It was devoted to showing off new inventions, the things that would shape the way we live, or even stuff that was just clever. The reason I was so enthralled was because of the ingenuity of what it showcased. It was possible to see how things worked, and what would happen if that little cog there engaged with this lever here. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I ended up an engineer.

But then, disaster! The silicon chip arrived! What had once been a tour of mechanical ingenuity became a procession of black boxes. “I plug this in here, and then the computer does all the interesting work.” All the bits that I was interested in were handled by a computer.

In terms of functionality, life transformation, economics, all that dull stuff, yes, computers are brilliant. But for me, the weird and wonderful designs of yesteryear are a cause for delight. I want machines that were designed by serious looking types with pipes who wore Fedora hats to work and worked in Imperial units. Real engineers.

There are many brilliant examples of “proper” engineering in the field of aviation, such as my personal favourite aircraft, the English Electric Lightning. Two massive engines with wings glued on the sides (pilot an optional extra). Maximum range was only 800 miles, but wow! Could it get there fast! Plus, it had a really cool classification. It wasn’t a fighter plane; it was an “Interceptor”. You can imagine how that went down in the flying officers’ mess.

But for sheer engineering ingenuity, perhaps one of the most wonderful aircraft is the Fairey Gannet.

Fairey Gannet AEW.3 XL502 at the Yorkshire Air Museum

It also has the virtue of being one the ugliest aircraft I have ever seen. Quite apart from the bulge of the belly-mounted airborne early warning system, the (hidden in this picture) third cockpit and finlets, there’s the two contra-rotating propellers. These are driven by twin turboprop engines running through a single gearbox, with a mind-boggling array of epicyclic, planetary and sun gears.

And the truly amazing thing about all this – apart from the fact that it worked – was that none of it was designed on a computer. There were no CAD packages or anything like that. It was pen and paper. And if you needed to do some of the horrendously complicated maths involved in this kind of work, there were no calculators. You had to use a slide rule. Real engineering designed by real engineers. There’s probably a hat peg in the cockpit.

Just one thing, though. Despite being a really impressive feat of engineering, and despite the wonders of flight… Would you feel comfortable at ten thousand feet in an aircraft that had wings that folded in three?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *