Air transport

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Theme Convener: Peter Waring

The part played by our engineers and designers in the realisation of transport by air has, at all stages, been a vital one. So far as the immediate present is concerned, our best example is the invention and development of the gas-turbine engine – an immensely important turning point in the history of powered flight. The narrative of the Air Transport section, therefore, begins with the progressive improvements that have been made in prime movers for aircraft. This series of displays culminates in an exhibit which future generations will regard as a great historical treasure – the final version of the first Whittle gas turbine.

Part of the gas-turbine story, which includes the latest turbo-jet and turbo-prop engines, is the essential contribution made by British metallurgists. It was they who evolved the new alloys capable of retaining their strength at the very high temperatures produced in these new engines. More than this, they have played an essential part in the construction of whole aircraft, for it is they who have devised the new light alloys with just those properties that meet the designers ever more exacting requirements.

Most of us, though, come closest to aircraft when we are passengers, and whether we are satisfied with them or not depends largely on the efficiency of the ground organisation which operates them as a transport service. All good organisation appears effortless, but there are a myriad complexities contained and controlled within a large modern airport. Our example is the new London Airport, still under construction 15 miles west of London. The Terminal Buildings here will be grouped on a 50-acre area in the centre of nine main runways. They house the staff and facilities that enable the airport to handle 4,000 passengers and large quantities of freight every hour of the day or night.

An essential part of the ground organisation, and of all aircraft operating, is radio and radar – the research and development of which are largely British. How essential they are to modern air transport will bc appreciated from the displays and demonstrations near the London Airport model.

It has long ceased to be a source of wonder that man can fly in machines heavier than air. The remarkable thing about modern aircraft is their combination of reliability with high performance. This is ensured by extensive research and testing of all vital parts before and during production. For many components, real working conditions are reproduced in wind and smoke tunnels so that their performance can be studied practically as well as theoretically. Our principal aeronautical laboratory is the Royal Aircraft Establishment, which has provided a demonstration to show how an aircraft wing, for example, is tested to destruction.

The greater part of the world knows that in 1940-1 we were fighting alone for our very existence. What it probably does not know is that, even in those never-to-be-forgotten days, our Government calmly set up a committee to advise what types of aircraft this country would need after the war. The result of this is the new range of British aircraft fast coming into commission now. Their character varies with the peculiar requirements of the routes over which they are designed to fly. The aim of all of them is to ensure that reliability, economy and passenger comfort shall be of the highest standard. A large number of models illustrate how this has been achieved.

Aircraft are the most modern vehicles of travel, and their development has been very fast. But, young though they are, they have a history. The principles on which all aircraft fly to-day were first elucidated in Yorkshire, by Cayley, in 1809. The first model aeroplane ever to make a powered flight did so in a lace factory in Somerset, and was built by John Stringfellow in 1848. It was two young Englishmen in 1919 who cut the apron strings that tied aircraft close to land by the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. These are only examples: the story is one of collective and individual achievement, culminating in the great invention with which this narrative began – Whittle’s gas-turbine engine and its progeny.