This weekend I visited the Royal Air Force museum at Hendon in London, UK. There is a huge collection of aircraft on display spanning aviation milestones of the last 100 years. From a Blériot flown in 1909 to the Eurofighter Typhoon and a life-sized model of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, there is a lot to see. Walking through the exhibition was like going on a journey through time, watching the evolution of military aircraft and the situations driving their design unfold before my eyes.
I couldn’t help but think that the 1930′s, 1940′s and 1950′s must have been pretty exciting years to be an engineer, imagining and designing the machines used for war fighting and beyond. Things were very different back then, with a rapid development cycle for new aircraft and ever changing operational requirements. There were a whole load of new aircraft designed and built in that era, each with a specific role to play. Fighters, long and short range bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, transport vehicles, the list goes on. There was a very clear focus on rapid development, delivering aircraft which were “good enough” but certainly not perfect, making good use of scarce resources. It was incredibly important to stay ahead in the arms race. The pressure was most definitely on.
As I was walking around the exhibition there was one aircraft in particular which stood out to me more than the rest. Perhaps because of it’s unusual shape or perhaps because of it’s sheer size, the Vulcan Bomber certainly captured my attention. Built in 1956 and acting as the backbone of the United Kingdom’s airborne nuclear deterrent during much of the Cold War (as well as filling the role of long range strategic bomber) the Vulcan wasn’t actually involved in a combat mission until 1982. Only then was it’s long range capabilities brought into play in the Black Buck raids during the Falklands War.
As a delta wing aircraft, the Vulcan is seriously big. For me, it’s design gets to the heart of the way aircraft were designed in that era. It’s clear there was a policy of getting the job done without messing around. Solving the design problem, and getting the aircraft in the sky as quickly as possible was the order of the day. The Vulcan was designed to meet a challenging set of operational requirements, and as such was an innovative and somewhat experimental design at the time.
Standing there looking up at this beast of an aircraft I imagined what it would have been like to have worked on the design or manufacture of the first prototypes. I probably painted an overly rosy picture, but I expect being part of that design team would have been incredibly rewarding.
After my mind had wandered for a while I came back to this thought, which I’ve come back to a few times since: “50 years from now, what will people think of the projects and products I’m working on?”. Somewhere inside me, I hope they’ll be a little bit jealous. How about you?