Cold War

The A.W.52 was Britain’s attempt at a Flying Wing

The Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52 was an innovative British flying wing aircraft developed in the 1940s.

This early attempt at a jet-powered flying wing design emerged from wartime research into laminar flow airfoils, which suggested significant efficiency gains over traditional aircraft configurations.

Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft constructed three prototypes, including a glider, to test and refine the flying wing concept with the ambition of developing a jet airliner.

Initially the concept was tested as the AW.52, a glider.
Initially, the concept was tested as the AW.52G, a glider.


A Technical Look at the AW.52

The Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52 was a testament to the innovative spirit of its era.

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Conceived in the late 1940s, this aircraft was a manifestation of the quest for aerodynamic efficiency through the flying wing design.

At the core of the A.W.52’s design philosophy was the flying wing configuration. Eschewing the traditional fuselage and tail assembly, the aircraft was designed as a singular wing, intending to reduce drag significantly.

This configuration sought not only to streamline the aircraft but also to ensure that every part contributed to lift generation. The A.W.52 featured an airfoil designed to maintain laminar flow across as much of the wing surface as possible.

The first flight of the AW.52 was only two years after the Second World War.
The first flight of the AW.52 was only two years after the Second World War.

Laminar flow, characterized by smooth layers of air sliding over the wing, minimizes skin-friction drag, a major source of aerodynamic resistance.

Armstrong Whitworth’s dedication to this technology was instrumental in reducing drag and improving performance. The A.W.52’s skeleton was crafted from an aluminium alloy, the go-to material for aircraft of the day, prized for its favourable strength-to-weight ratio. Its internal structure was a marvel of engineering, ensuring the wing was sufficiently rigid and robust to withstand aerodynamic forces without traditional support structures.

Powering the A.W.52 were two Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engines. The Nene marked a significant stride in jet engine development when it was introduced in 1944.

This aircraft was introduced just after the Second World War.
The Vampire was one of many aircraft to use the Rolls Royce Nene jet engine.

Building on the foundations laid by its predecessors, it offered enhanced performance and reliability, making it a popular choice for a variety of aircraft.

At the core of the engine’s design was its single-stage centrifugal compressor. This design choice, while yielding a more robust and easier-to-manufacture engine, also resulted in a distinctly larger and shorter profile compared to its axial counterparts. The engine featured an annular combustion chamber, a notable improvement over the can-type chambers of the time, allowing for more efficient and continuous combustion.

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The turbine, too, was a single-stage affair, carefully calibrated to extract maximum energy from the high-temperature gases produced in the combustion chamber.

The AW.52 used a pair of Nene engines.
The AW.52 used a pair of Nene engines.

The RR Nene was no slouch in the power department. Capable of producing a thrust of about 5,000 pounds (22 kN), it was among the more powerful engines of its time. This impressive output was facilitated by the use of high-temperature alloys in its construction, enabling the engine to operate at higher efficiencies.

The Quest for Reduced Drag

Armstrong Whitworth’s ambitious vision with the A.W.52 was to slash aerodynamic drag to a mere third of what conventional aircraft experienced.

The entire ethos of the aircraft was to reduce drag.
The entire ethos of the aircraft was to reduce drag.

This endeavour was not without its challenges, as flying wings traditionally faced issues with stability, particularly in pitch. Indeed, the A.W.52’s flight history was marked by a pitch oscillation incident that underscored the difficulties inherent to the design.

The A.W.52’s journey from the drawing board to the clouds was paved with rigorous testing.

The program included both glider and powered prototypes, facilitating a comprehensive evaluation of the aircraft’s aerodynamics, handling, and structural integrity across various flight regimes. Testing began with the A.W.52G, a glider version of the A.W.52.

This prototype was crucial in providing initial data on the aerodynamic properties and flight characteristics of the flying wing design.

The first version of the AW.52 wasn't equipped with any engines and was tested as a glider.
The first version of the AW.52 wasn’t equipped with any engines and was tested as a glider.

The glider trials were instrumental in paving the way for the powered versions, offering insights into handling and stability that would inform subsequent modifications.

Following the glider tests, Armstrong Whitworth introduced two jet-powered prototypes. These aircraft were fitted with Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engines, a choice that placed them at the forefront of the emerging jet technology.

The jet-powered A.W.52s were a significant step up, intended to explore the performance and handling of the flying wing design at higher speeds and altitudes. One of the central aspects of the A.W.52’s testing was evaluating its stability and control, particularly given the inherent challenges of the tailless design.

The lack of a traditional tail was difficult to overcome.
The lack of a traditional tail was difficult to overcome.

Flight tests were designed to assess how the aircraft responded under various conditions, including takeoff, flight manoeuvres, and landing. The data gathered was invaluable in understanding the nuances of flying wing aerodynamics.

The Inherent Instability of Flying Wings

Flying wings, by their very design, omit the conventional tail section that provides stability and control in traditional aircraft.

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The Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52, like its contemporaries in the flying wing category, was a bold step into this tailless realm.

The primary appeal of this design was the promise of reduced drag and increased fuel efficiency – a significant lure in an era where aviation was rapidly evolving. The absence of a tail in flying wings presents an aerodynamic puzzle.

A closeup of the AW.52s nose and air intakes.
A closeup of the nose and air intakes.

The tail of a conventional aircraft plays a crucial role in maintaining stability, particularly in pitch (up and down movement) and yaw (side-to-side movement).

Without this stabilizing feature, flying wings often experience difficulties in maintaining a stable flight path. This challenge was acutely evident in the A.W.52, which encountered severe pitch oscillations during its testing phase.

Another facet of the instability issue is the complexity of controlling a flying wing. The control surfaces on these aircraft, which combine the functions of ailerons and elevators (known as elevons), have to work overtime to provide the necessary manoeuvrability.

In the A.W.52, these control challenges were significant, requiring innovative solutions and a deep understanding of aerodynamics to manage effectively. The inherent instability of flying wings represents a trade-off. The efficiency gains from a reduced drag profile come at the cost of reduced natural stability.

Designers and engineers, in the case of the A.W.52 and similar aircraft, had to grapple with this trade-off, balancing the aerodynamic advantages with the practicalities of stable and safe flight.

Can you name all the other aircraft in this photo?
Can you name all the other aircraft in this photo?

Safety in Innovation

As jet aircraft began reaching new heights and speeds in the mid-20th century, the importance of an effective and reliable emergency escape mechanism became increasingly apparent.

The A.W.52, with its high-speed capabilities and unique design challenges, was at the forefront of this new era. The inclusion of an ejector seat in this aircraft was more than just an addition; it was a necessity for ensuring the pilot’s safety.

While specific details about the make and model of the ejector seat in the A.W.52 are scarce, it’s safe to assume that it was among the early iterations of this technology. Typically, ejector seats of that era employed a gunpowder charge or a primitive rocket motor to thrust the seat and pilot out of the aircraft in an emergency.

This rapid ejection was crucial for ensuring the pilot could escape even at high altitudes and speeds where manual bailout was impossible. The significance of the A.W.52’s ejector seat was underscored in a dramatic test flight incident.

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During a test on the 30th of May 1949, the prototype experienced severe pitch oscillations, leading to the first emergency use of an ejector seat in British aviation history.

This event not only saved the life of the test pilot but also marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of pilot safety mechanisms. Although the aircraft was recovered with minimal damage, the incident led Armstrong Whitworth to lose confidence in the flying wing’s practicality. The development of the A.W.52 and the envisioned airliner was terminated, but the second prototype continued flying for research purposes until 1954​​.