Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Sound Barrier

In the current Film Programme, Professor Christopher Frayling corrects some inaccuracies but introduces some of his own. The subject was The Sound Barrier, a David Lean film scripted by Terence Rattigan, made in the era before Lean's budgets and reputation became overblown. Rattigan, too, was on top form, writing about the flying that he knew so well. During the war, he had been in that most hazardous of occupations, a tail-gunner.

Professor Frayling correctly stated that Chuck Yeager had already broken the sound barrier in 1947, before the events in the British film supposedly took place. Rattigan knew this, but his reference to it in the script was cut out. He may also have known the history of the real British research carried out by the Miles Aircraft Company in the 1940s, research which was shared with the American Bell company under a wartime agreement. Both Yeager's exploit, and the research by Bell and Miles, remained official secrets for many years. Wikipedia says:
In 1944, design work was considered 90% complete and Miles was told to go ahead with the construction of three prototype M.52s. Later that year, the Air Ministry signed an agreement with the United States to exchange high-speed research and data. Miles Chief Aerodynamicist Dennis Bancroft stated that the Bell Aircraft company was given access to the drawings and research on the M.52,[ but the U.S. reneged on the agreement and no data was forthcoming in return. Unknown to Miles, Bell had already started construction of a rocket-powered supersonic design of their own, but with a conventional tail were battling the problem of control. A variable-incidence tail appeared to be the most promising solution; the Miles and RAE tests supported this. Later, following conversion of the tail, pilot Chuck Yeager verified it experimentally, and all subsequent supersonic aircraft would either have an all-moving tailplane or a delta wing.

It is possible that the implausible flight manoeuvre which is the key to success in the British film is a substitute for Miles' breakthrough tail design. In correcting the record, Professor Frayling could also have given credit to the real British contributors to early supersonic flight.

Frayling was plain wrong when he said that audiences didn't know what jets were in 1952. Both the Gloster Meteor and the de Havilland Vampire were in service in increasing numbers with the RAF and a familiar sight (and sound) near air bases in the late 1940s. The Comet (which features in The Sound Barrier) made its debut in 1952 but had already gained much press attention.

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