Sunday, May 21, 2006

Jetblast from the Past: Soviet Espionage in the Commercial Aircraft Industry!

Vickers, an affiliate of the British Aircraft Corporation, began design and production of a new narrowbody airliner in response to the entry into commercial service of the first successful large-scale jet aircraft, the Boeing 707, in 1958. While the Boeing 707 proved valuable for transcontinental service on airlines such as Pan Am and American Airlines, the plane's design at the time proved problematic for British Airways predecessor BOAC. The plane required long runways due to insufficient power for quick takeoffs, had trouble taking off in conditions of low air density, and required substantial ground support to power the plane for loading operations and to even start its engines. These caveats to B707 operation precluded its use on many of BOACs routes that served high altitude airports and shorter runways. Vickers' solution was the VC-10, which entered commercial service in 1965.

The plane was regarded, and still is by many, as one of the most graceful jet designs to enter commercial airline service. Powered by four Rolls Royce engines and an improved wing design aimed at increasing takeoff ability, the plane exhibited enhanced performance over the Boeing 707 (which also had four engines, which were wing-mounted). These engines were tail-mounted in pairs, a novel arrangement that reduced cabin noise and gave the plane its highly distinguished look. Only 54 of the planes were built, and production ended in 1970. The better operating economics of the by then-popular McDonell Douglas DC8 and Boeing 707 encouraged airports to extend runways as these airplane models were improved in the 1960s, such that the demand for continued production of the VC-10 was no longer apparent.

Interestingly, the Soviet company Ilyushin developed a new airliner at about the same time as the VC-10 project. The Il-62 (pictured at the right), launched into commercial service in 1967, bore a striking resemblance to the VC-10, including the paired T-tail mounted powerplants and novel wing design. The two aircraft are difficult to distinguish except for the Il-62's more abrupt lines of the tail design and the wings as viewed from above. Also, the Il-62 was designed specifically for long-range operations and featured a more traditional flight deck compared to that of the VC-10.

Was the similar design of the Il-62 an indication of Soviet industrial espionage? Many at the time of the launch of Ilyushin's plane believed so. Perhaps this argument was bolstered by the dramatic similarities between another pair of aircraft under development at the time, the supersonic British/French Aerospeciale Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144. In this case, such espionage was proven when French authorities discovered an official of Soviet airline Aeroflot, Sergei Pavlov, receiving tire scrapings from a Concorde plane parked at a Paris airport. In the end, French officials found copies of blueprints of the Concorde's landing gear in Pavlov's suitcase in 1965. For a time, French authorities "cooperated" with the Soviet Union, providing experimental substances and materials (such as for the engineering of new tires) for the Soviet company to experiment with in the design of the -144. As it turns out, this assistance was actually aimed to hamper Tupolev's progress in designing their supersonic aircraft, as these materials had absolutely no possible use for aircraft development! The fiasco resulted in Sergei Pavlov's deportation from France and his subsequent promotion to Deputy Minister for Civil Aviation in the Soviet Union, for a "job well done".

The Tu-144 project experienced a huge blow as a plane crashed in a famously disastrous flight at the 1973 Paris Airshow, resulting from the mid-air breakup of the aircraft as it experienced a stall during a rapid evasive maneuver.

So who had the last laugh? The Tu-144 entered commercial service in the 1970s, but continuing operation problems grounded regularly scheduled flights with Aeroflot in 1978. Only 16 of the planes were built. In contrast, the British/French Aerospeciale/BAC Concorde remained in service with Air France and British Airways until 2003, following an Air France crash near Paris in the summer of 2000.

As for the Il-62, the Soviets proved more successful, as production of the plane continued through the early 1990s, with a total of approximately 250 aircraft built. Over 100 still remain in commercial service to this day. Unfortunately for Vickers, their plane ceased production only five years after its introduction into civil aviation. The Royal Air Force has since acquired a number of these planes, and they continue to operate as airborne refeuling aircraft.

As a note of interest, Vickers developed a number of "concept" planes that, thankfully, were never produced. One was for a jumbo jet that consisted of three separate fuselages attached to the wing. One can only imagine how an airport would handle the passenger loading of such an aircraft!!


Blogger Ben said...

Thanks for the post! I always appreciate your graphics--they liven up this site.

1:33 PM  

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