Vertical take-off Mach 4 Lockheed Skunk Works’ Flying Cigar

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A 1957 patent by Skunk Works genius Nathan C. Price envisioned Mach 4 airliners shaped like cigars. Powered by ramjets, capable of vertical take-off and flying in the mid-Stratosphere, the designs almost certainly started as a Black project with a military application in mind. 

The Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner was the first commercial transport aircraft to enter service with a pressurised cabin, thanks to the ingenious cabin pressure regulator created by Nathan C. Price. He also developed the supercharger for the P-38 Lightning fighter without which it would had lacklustre performance at higher altitudes. He was an early champion of the axial-flow jet engine and an important figure in US jet propulsion development.

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He was exceptionally far-sighted in his vision: his Lockheed L-133 design (above), work on which started in 1939, was for a blended wing-body canard delta jet fighter capable of 612mph. By the 1950s, as Lockheed’s senior engineer, he was happily designing Mach 4 flying saucers— but even these were conventional compared to his next one. He proposed an airliner with no wing, no control surfaces, no visible cockpit and it was to have a cruising speed between Mach 3-4 and be capable of vertical take-off and landing! ciagr 34.png

The machine was essentially a ramjet-powered missile, albeit full of holiday-makers. Ramjets can only function at high speeds, so in order to reach these speeds it harnessed the power of a clutch of turbojet engines. Vertical takeoff and landing would take place by directing the exhaust gases of the turbojets (using the Coandă effect Effect: the tendency of a fluid jet to stay attached to a convex surface). Without visible control surfaces steering was to be via selective vectored thrust channelled through louvres.

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Once the huge ramjet kicked in the machine was expected to reach 100,000ft, and achieve intercontinental ranges. The machine would utilise inertial guidance and have a high degree of automation — but would carry a crew to manage emergencies. It is believed that wind tunnel testing took place, though fascinating concept was never built.

It was filed as a patent in 1957 but it was not listed until late 1964. Though revealed as an airliner it seems highly likely — considering both Skunk Works history and the Cold War context —  that the study begun life as a military aircraft, most likely a nuclear strike platform or reconnaissance aircraft.

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