Wednesday waffle

The fuzzy logic of wind-down aeroplane windows:

Sir Sydney Camm, William Heath-Robinson and the birth of a legend

Wednesday waffles? Well mid-week is a bit of a hump day for most folks, so what better time for some gentle diversionary blog postings (which may occasionally include random silliness, and tongue in cheek cheekiness).

This is the first waffle, kicking off a mini-series on the peculiarities of British aircraft design. It neatly (yet not entirely intentionally) taps into our globally altered state, to consider the ins and outs of vacating the ‘office’ and in doing so, take a sideways glance at the ergonomics of 1930s aeronautical cockpit design. Not so much working from home, more a long walk home after punching out in a timely fashion. . .

“It looks marvellous Sid! But are you sure it will fly?”

If Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus crystallised the European design ethic with a clinical functionality and clarity of line which resulted in such classics as the AEG Nuvo fan, B3 'Wassily' Chair, Volkswagen Beetle, Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Pzkpfw VI Tiger tank; then Sir Sydney Camm possibly spent much of the inter-war years in the Dog and Weasel with his good friend and mentor William Heath-Robinson doodling half baked ideas on a damp beer mat. 

"I'm not sure about that wing ratio Bill. . ."

“yes Sid. . .another pint, and a pickled egg?”

Unlike many of the aviation world's great designs, the Hawker Typhoon spent most of its 'difficult' design period in the snug of a little known hostelry in darkest Suffolk. On any given damp Wednesday afternoon our Sid and his bespectacled inventor friend could be found in the Dog and Weasel knocking the rough edges off the new kite under the influence of half a mild and the inhaled mind-altering effects of St. Bruno ready rub.

The resulting angry behemoth, presciently named Tornado, was eventually rolled out of a shed to the gasps of beautiful women and the concerned gaze of assorted stern-jawed RAF types. Their apprehension was not for the sheer brutalist epic-ness, but for the unconventional mode of entry and dearth of transparent material.

"I say Ginger! It looks like it will knock the Hun about a bit",

"Yes Algy, but how does one see out of the bally thing"

In an age when most British designed flying machines were typically reserved, and raised in that peculiar middle-class system to conduct themselves with restrained decorum, the prototype Typhoon looked like it intended to spill your pint and knock your teeth out for a laugh.

"Quick, hide, it’s the Piranha brothers"

But the gruff hirsute Typhoon wasn’t always the 'vicious but fair' bubble topped 'panzerknacker' we’ve come to know and build unfeasibly large model kits of.

It had a troubled childhood growing up in the shadow of its ever so slightly older and near identical twin brother, the Tornado. The Tornado was to put it mildly, unhinged. To test pilot johnnies and assorted other flying types, it presented a unique challenge and looked like it might pull both your arms out of their sockets with one hand while knocking back a pint of Theakston’s Old Peculier with the other.

“The convertible is extra sir”  

To be fair to our Sid, the Air Ministry’s design specification F.18/37 paid scant attention to the human element of egress and concentrated on nosebleed inducing speed and a chunky wing section to house as many dice ‘n’ slice attachments as possible.

The ambitious specification also appeared to ask too much of mid-thirties plastics technology and forced Camm to look for strength via a metal cockpit aft fairing. This was partly to achieve fuselage rigidity immediately behind the cockpit, and partly to assuage concerns that the driver’s head might implode as the beast hurtled through the footless halls of air at 400+ knots. Plus, it was argued, at these sorts of speeds, you didn’t need to see who was behind you anyway. (little known fact: Enzo Ferrari would adopt this mirrorless design ethic in his post war 'redhead' period).

After forcing several of Hawker's test-drivers into sudden retirement, an attempt was made to rehabilitate the Tornado's teenage tearaway image by adding a hipster beard attachment. Despite this dalliance with sartorial elegance, via the installation of an equally troublesome radial power-plant (Bristol couldn’t get the sleeve distortion problem under control), the Tornado was eventually parked up in a quiet corner of the aerodrome and after some thought and more light ale, was re-branded as the ‘new improved’ Typhoon.

It's not well documented, but the prototype teenage tearaway Tornado was eventually committed to a lunatic asylum, due mainly to its unpredictable truculence and violent outbursts.

What with the news that Boulton-Paul had beaten him to the four gun turret fighter Air Ministry contract with their 'definitely maybe' Defiant, (arguably an altogether ersatz version of the more manly Hawker Hotspur), Sidney had to have a bit of a lie down and rethink his approach.

“I thought it was all going so well Ethel”.

“Yes yes dear, and after all we did for the lad”

“That Tiffy sure is fine lookin' man, it’s somethin’ else!”

In an age of ‘if it looked right, then it would probably fly right’ design ethos, the Typhoon had to be squinted at through half closed eyes. Remember that these were the days of sticky slide rules and propelling pencils; aeroplane designers were dour middle-aged men in corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches, who kept whippets and looked like they'd been knocking on forty all their lives.

Their disturbed visions of killing machines required some hardy soul (or clinically insane, its a fine line) to find out if the thing would actually stay in the air. . . and to make life just a tad more interesting, it still had that odd canopy which looked like it came straight out of the Austin A7 spares cupboard.

The Typhoon’s main foibles (like all cunning plans, it just needed a tail pinned back on to it) are well documented. From quick-release detachable empennages and a rather nasty vibration problem (that would render many Typhoon drivers impotent), to a sulky engine that had all the overweening starting qualities of a reality TV show C-lister, and a high pitched voice to match (never, EVER use the fifth Coffmann cartridge Gerald. . .)

This aeroplane guaranteed to put hairs on your chest and age you ten years in one sortie That’s if it didn’t asphyxiate you first with carbon monoxide buildup.

“Gerald no! Remember what it did to dear Bertie, he can’t look at artichokes anymore”

Briefs encounter

But what of that egress system, the main thrust of our waffle? If ever there was an aeroplane that you would probably need to carry a change of underwear for when contemplating getting out of in a hurry, then the Typhoon was probably it.

Charging around in a semi-controllable aeroplane propelled by what is probably the most complex and unreliable aero engine ever to make it into series production, simultaneously raised concerns and hairs on the neck. Most of these would have been manageable in isolation if it wasn’t for the bothersome problem of getting out of the beast in a hurry.

Today’s designers recognise that there are going to be times when you need to get out of an aeroplane quickly for various unplanned reasons, and thanks to some brave souls such as Bernard Lynch, and Sylvia here, we now have some very clever seats which to date have saved 7,441 lives.

“Are you sure a little bit of wee won’t come out?”

We cannot be certain of what was going through Camm’s mind when he came up with the claustrophobic canopy design of the Typhoon’s manic progenitor, or why after several sweaty palm moments, the series production airframe retained the sticky wind-down Austin style windows and doors which would require the driver to turn green in a shirt ripping super hero way and push the door into the slipstream (in reality, they had a jettison feature). Why it didn’t incorporate the definitive bubble hood design from the get go is another question we’d like to ask our Sid as in retrospect many ‘car door’ Typhoons were modified to a bubble top configuration later.

The Air Ministry official instructions for bailing out of a car door Tiffy are typically terse:

“Unclip radio and oxygen mask, open door and step out into the slipstream",

- but tellingly they neglect to say:

"Taking care not to collect the tail with your noggin on your way out”,

These don’t exactly inspire confidence in the user who probably already had some misgivings about the angry sounding engine and the tail sections’ subliminal urge as Freddie Mercury says, to 'break free'. We can only imagine that most Tiffy drivers, prior to hurtling off in search of those sartorially elegant Menschen in their off-road Mk VI thick-skinned Porsches, would studiously ignore the fact that leaving the office was a ridiculous proposition and instead, with pipe between clenched teeth, roll up their sleeves and put their faith in the ruggedness of the Tiffy and a forced landing.

The stuff of legend.

Kia kaha, noho kaha

Anthony - Wellington 2021 (revised).

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