THE rocket plane, both real and fictional, keeps cropping up from time to time. The idea of a sleek, stub-winged craft roaring through the heavens on a plume of smoke It intriguing to designers and fictional writers alike.
It is a fairly well-known fact that the Germans have applied booster rockets to some of its heavily loaded bombers and transports to assist in taking off. There seems to be two distinct variations to this idea. In the first, and probably most widely known method, a series of powder rockets are attached to the under side of the plane's wings. These are fired as soon as the ship begins to roll, thereby adding considarable thrust to the already overtaxed engines. The duration of the rocket charges is of neccessity rather short, perhaps no more than five or ten seconds, but this is usually sufficient to boost the heavily loaded ship from the ground.
The other method, which I have reason to believe is not in such wide use, consists of a track, and a carriage to which a group of rockets are attached. The plane is lowered into a cradle upon the rail-car and its engines are opened wide. At a given signal, the rockets which propel the car are fired, simultaneous with the releasing of the gear which has held the plane stationary. This provides an enormous take-off spurt which will lift a much-overloaded bomber into the air, something which could not be done by the thrust of its engines alone.
The disadvantage of method number two are fairly obvious. The track must of course be laid in one direction without permitting changes in the event of a cross-wind. unless, thai is, several alternate tracks are laid. To do this increases the vulnerability of the take-off point to attacks by air. The only distinct advantage it has over the other method of roccket launching, is that the take-off is made with wheels retracted, greatly decreasing wind resistance, and further facilitating the take-off.
Since 1929 the Germans have been experimenting with rocket propulsion as applied to aircraft. The first attempts were mainly made with gliders, to which were affixed powder-rockets, similar to the kind the Coast Guard uses for signal purposes. Flights of up to five miles were made in crafts of this kind. The rockets were not used as a take-off impetus in most cases as their duration was brief. The practice was to launch the gliders with shock cord, and use the rockets as power units after the ship was in the air. In nearly every instance these experiments were terminated by violent explosions. The rocket craze appeared to die out except hi the hearts of a few ardent experimenters.
New fuels were developed, as were inproved methods of burning them. Liquid oxygen and gasoline, liquid hydrogen and oxygen and combinations of other liquid and gaseous fuels were tried. One engine was developed which used powdered fuel, blown into its combustion chamber in the form of dust. Others, not only in Germany but all over the world, tried every conceivable method of applying reaction-thrust lo all sorts of vehicles. Some believed that the over-heating problem could be solved by intermittent explosions. That is a series of explosions, one after the other delivering a steady push. New alloys were developed to withstand the terrific heats developed in the reaction engines. Data was collected, data that woeld one day prove extremely useful.
The Americans and British have not been far behind, if indeed they are behind at all. Prof. Goddards experiments in New Mexico with strato rockets capable of 700 m.p.h. are familiar to all of us. Before the present war, rumors of a fuel-oil banting rocket plane had leaked out of England. It had been developed by an officer of the R.A.F. Nothing has been heard of it since, but it it not logical that it may be under further improvement?
For a time in Austria there was a tegular rocket-mail. The stamp with the winged rocket is familiar to stamp collectors the world over.
I had the opportunity to talk to a young Jewish refugee just before the outbreak of the war. Somehow or other the conversation switched to rockets. I was told very matter-of-factly that the Germans had been flying a rocket-propelled plane for some time. Nor were the rockets attached as an auxiliary unit. They were the sole propulsive force of the aircraft, no propeller of any kind was used, the take-off being supplied entirely by the rockets. This was in 1937. That was five years ago. It would seem that plenty of time has elapsed in which the plane might be perfected. The Me. 109 was developed from its prototypes. In a matter of slightly less than three years.
The Germans are not ones to overlook any possibilities. If the rocket plane they built would fly at all, it would be capable of further exploitation.
The rocket plane would be a terrible weapon. It would be capable of speeds far in excess of present day fighters. It would require no supercharging to operate in the stratosphere. For all practical purposes it would be silent, except for a slight hiss. Because of the fact that a rocket engine develops power all out of proportion to its size it could either carry more fuel to increase its range, or a heavier pay-load of guns or bombs. It would be more invulnerable, the small aim of the propelling unit would easily lend itself to better armoring. The wake of smoke and/or gasses which it would trail would prove an effective deterrent to an opponent seeking to pick it off from behind. It would be capable of startling acceleration, performing maneuvers impossible to propeller-driven aircraft, such as diving straight up at speeds approached by regular fighters on the level.
Perhaps the Nazis have been hoarding just such a weapon against the time when it would be most sorely needed. The time may be approaching when they will pull such a weapon out of their bag of tricks. Perhaps it will take us by surprise. Perhaps it will not, for, don't forget that we have many smart rocket engineers on our side, who are not going to overlook such a possibility.
Yes, I think it is entirely within the bounds of reason to expect to see rocket planes developed during this conflict. It is the obvious answer to the propellers' nasty trick of losing efficiency at high speeds. The Nazis may try to slip a fast one over on us with their rockets. But ... don't say I didn't warn you ... We might best them to it.
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