Wednesday waffle 1: The fuzzy logic of wind-down aeroplane windows

Wednesday waffles? Why Wednesday and why toasted batter eh? Well mid-week is a bit of a hump day for most folks and what better time for diversionary tactics which include random sillyness and tongue in cheek cheekiness. Plus some weeks I gets to thinking and by Wednesday, I just might have enough of a part formed idea to write about.

As Kenny said "it's all in the best possible taste!"

This is the first waffle, kicking off an occasional and ever so slightly tongue in cheek mini-series on inter-war and post-war British aircraft designs.

#1 considers the ins and outs of vacating the ‘office’ (or cockpit to our non-British readers) and takes a sideways glance at the ergonomics of design in the 1930s by poking some gentle fun at the early variants of the utterly epic Hawker Typhoon.

“It looks bloody marvellous Sid, but are you sure it will fly?”

Sir Sydney Camm, W. Heath Robinson and the birth of a legend: The Hawker Typhoon

If Walter Gropius crystallised the European design ethic with a clinical functionality and clarity of line that resulted in such classics as the Beetle, Bf 109 and Pzkpfw VI Tiger; 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. “Another pint and a pickled egg Sid?”

Several dozen pints of warm cloudy ale and deconstructed beer mats later, the unfeasibly muscular progenitor of the Hawker Typhoon was rolled out of a hanger in darkest Suffolk to the gasps of beautiful women and the concerned gaze of assorted lantern jawed RAF types. Their apprehension was not for the sheer behemoth-sized epic-ness but for the unconventional mode of entry and dearth of transparent material.

What was our Sid thinking? In an age when most British designed flying machines were typically reserved and raised in that peculiar middle-class system where conducting themselves with restrained decorum was a compulsory aspect of 'playing the game'; the prototype Typhoon looked like it wanted to spill your pint and knock your teeth out for a laugh.

"Quick hide, it’s the Piranha brothers"

The gruff Typhoon wasn’t always the 'vicious but fair' bubble topped panzerknacker we’ve come to love and build unfeasibly large scale models of (well at least I would like to, if only my house was big enough. . .)

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. It 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 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 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 towards thinner air at 400+ knots. Plus it was argued that at these sorts of speeds, you didn’t need to see who was behind you. (little known fact: Enzo Ferrari would adopt this in his post war car designs).

In an attempt to rehabilitate its bad boy image, the Tornado was given a hipster beard attachment. Despite this dalliance with sartorial elegance and the installation of an equally troublesome sleeve valve Centaurus 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 was re-branded as the ‘new improved’ Typhoon.

It's not well documented but the Tornado was actually committed to a Borstal for its unpredictable truculence and violent tendencies, all of which which hit our Sid hard.

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 still had to be squinted at through half closed eyes. Remember that these were the days of slide rules and propelling pencils; of pale ale supping, prematurely balding middle-aged men in corduroy jackets. Their disturbed visions of killing machines required some hardy soul (mad bugger) 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 behind the smoking shed at Dagenham.

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

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. “Are your lips blue? Do you need an ambulance?”.

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

Briefs encounter

But what of that egress system? 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 with a schizophrenic powerplant simultaneously raised concerns and hairs on the neck. Most of these would have been manageable 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 for various unplanned reasons, and thanks to some brave souls such as Bernard Lynch, and Sylvia here, we now have some very clever bang seats which to date have saved 7,441 lives and counting.

“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. Why it didn’t incorporate the definitive bubble hood design from the get go is another question we’d like to ask our Sid in retrospect (many ‘car door’ Typhoons were modified later).

The Air Ministry official instructions for bailing out of a car door Tiffy are typically spartan (as in “unclip radio and oxygen mask, open door and step out into the slipstream", but tellingly they neglect to say "take care not to collect the tail with your melon on your way out”) and these don’t exactly inspire confidence in the user who already has some misgivings about the angry sounding engine and the tail sections’ subliminal urge (like Freddie says) to break free.

We can only imagine that most Tiffy drivers, prior to hurtling off in search of those sartorially elegant Mensch 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.


(All images used with permission). 2020.

55 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All