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    106: The Jet Age

The Jet Age (Gallery 106)

Marking a huge time and technological leap forward into the modern era is The Jet Age, next door. In the years leading up to World War II, airplane designers were grappling with the physical limits of how fast and large an airplane could be when powered by traditional piston engines similar in design to the ones seen at the end of the Early Flight gallery. (An engine’s pistons have to be larger and move faster for a plane’s propeller to spin faster. At very high speeds, the back-and-forth stress on the pistons will shatter the metal they’re made of, and the engine will fail.)

The gas turbine engine, invented independently by Dr. Hans von Ohain, a German, and Sir Frank Whittle, a Brit, was a completely new method of aircraft propulsion. Like the piston engine, the gas turbine uses the controlled detonation of liquid fuel for propulsion. However, the detonations in a jet engine spin a circular turbine, turning around a central shaft, to produce power. Because the turbine spins in a circle instead of moving up and down like a piston, jet engines don’t have the same mechanical stress as piston engines, and can be made larger and more powerful. (That’s the main reason jets go faster than propeller-driven airplanes.) As you enter the gallery, you’ll see a cutout diagram of a typical jet engine’s main parts and how they work together.

With fast jet engines, aircraft designers faced a new problem: the straight, mostly rectangle shape of traditional aircraft wings would lose control or break apart as the plane approached supersonic speeds (around 761 miles per hour). New wing shapes had to be designed and tested to achieve faster, supersonic flight, and each new wing shape had its own set of pros and cons. A display at the entrance to this gallery shows several common wing shapes, their tradeoffs, and photos of common planes with each wing configuration.

One of the better displays, at the far end of the gallery, is a miniature wing section from a Lockheed L-1011 jet. Push a button to activate the display, and the wing will step through the process of changing its shape for a typical landing. An audio track plays simultaneously, providing the sound you’ll hear in the cabin as the wing’s flaps deploy farther and farther out, to generate the low-speed lift needed to keep a heavy airliner aloft before landing. If you’re flying out of DC and have a view of the wing of your plane, you can see the same mechanism and movement on your flight home.

Three early, jet-powered military aircraft are on display in The Jet Age:

Messerschmitt Me 262A Schwalbe: Development of the ME 262 started prior to World War II, and the Me 262 became the first jet fighter used in combat, in June, 1944. To get to that point, German engineers had to overcome a number of technical problems: developing metals that wouldn’t melt from the sustained heat of jet engine combustion; control problems at takeoff resulting from the jet engine’s more powerful thrust; and low-speed stability for a plane designed to fly very fast.

With these issues sorted, the Me 262 was the fastest aircraft of World War II; its top speed of around 540 m.p.h. was more than 100 m.p.h. above the Allies’ P-51 Mustang (in Gallery 205). At this point in the war, fortunately for Allied pilots, Germany had neither the time nor the industrial capacity to mass-produce enough Me 262s to affect the outcome. The aircraft on display here is one of the most commonly produced models, and was captured in Germany.

McDonnell FH-1 Phantom I: This model was the first production jet fighter to be based from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, in 1947. Because they’re heavier and faster than similarly sized piston-engine planes, it’s harder for a jet to take off and land in the limited space of a carrier deck. (The steam-powered catapults seen on today’s Navy ships were not deployed until the mid-1950’s.) The FH-1 Phantom on display here could use small wing-mounted rockets for takeoff, and split wing flaps and speed brakes to slow down for landing.

Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star: This experimental jet served as the testbed for the F-80 jet fighter, the first operational combat fighter for the U.S. Air Force, from 1944 to 1949. The aircraft displayed here is the original prototype, and was the first jet-powered U.S. aircraft to exceed 500 m.p.h. in flight.

Touring Tips

Along the main walkway in this gallery is a collection of gas turbine engines, including the first models produced by von Ohain and Whittle, as well as more advanced versions. Other exhibits include various jet aircraft cockpit displays, showing how vastly more information was conveyed to pilots as the planes they were flying became more complicated. While they’re moderately interesting, we think a cursory glance at these is sufficient.

This gallery’s movie, Sneaking Through the Sound Barrier, is a fictional comedy about a test pilot, and isn’t worth your time.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum