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« Painted Classical Sculpture | Main | Fact for the Day »

April 21, 2008

Sculpted Jets

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I have the impression that artists tend to look down on engineers when they aren't completely ignoring them. Architects are a little more sympathetic, citing certain bridges and other structures as being "beautiful" in the simplified, Modernist sense.

Industrial designers in the past tended to hold engineer-designed products as counter-examples to the beauty, sophistication and sales potential that the ID crowd could gladly produce. And it's true that cars designed by engineers almost always suffer by comparison to stylist-designed automobiles.

Still, engineers are fully capable of designing beautiful objects. Well, some are.

I offer for your consideration two jet fighters designed shortly after the end of World War 2, when jet planes were a new and exciting thing.


North American F-86 Sabre

The most subtly-formed part of the Sabre is the area around the air intake at the front. As a pre-teen I couldn't convincingly draw it, and it's not easy for trained artists to get it right. (Although it had other uses, that red thing in the opening is a plug to prevent museum-goers, in this case, from tossing empty soda cups and other trash into the intake.) What makes the nose difficult to draw is the small radar "dome" above and slightly forward of the intake and how it blends with the front profile of the fuselage.

Here is a head-on view of a Sabre. Note that the fuselage takes the form of a rounded triangle in the sense that the widest point is near the bottom. This is what the radome had to blend into. The radar scanner had to be projected forward of the rest of the aircraft in order for it to function better. It's possible that the radar "nose nib" might have had aerodynamic advantages for the inlet at certain angles of attack, but that's pure speculation on my part.

This picture of a Canadian-built Sabre is intended to give you a good idea how the plane looked. A really attractive aircraft, though a quibbler might mention that the tail surfaces seem slightly too delicate.

Grumman F9F Panther

This is a photo of a model airplane. I'm using it because it shows the surface sculpting better than did photos I found on the Web of actual planes. The Panther was tubby, unlike the Sabre. This was entirely due to the engines. The Sabre was powered by an axial-flow engine that is comparatively long and narrow -- tube-like. Modern jet-propelled planes are powered by axial-flow engines that are often fattened because of a bypass feature. Many earlier jets such as the Panther had centrifugal-flow motors. In this design -- based on turbochargers -- air smashed into a turning, spiral-flanged faceplate and was spun off to a ring of combustion chambers. Such engines were comparatively short and fat. Worse, for military purposes, they weren't suited for sonic and supersonic speeds.

The fuselage of the Panther is round ahead of the wings. Air intakes for the engine are on the wing roots. Cowlings for the intakes extend behind the wings, merging with the fuselage near the jet outlet; these are interesting shapes. Meanwhile, back of the cockpit, the top of the fuselage develops a crease that rises towards the rear, becoming the vertical tailplane. The fuselage more or less truncates at the end of the jet exhaust. There are two reason for this. First, the Panther did not carry an afterburner that would have called for a longer tailpipe. Second, long tailpipes reduce the efficiency of jet engines, so designers are strongly tempted to place the outlet as close to the engine as possible. In any case, the Panther has a good deal of subtle, interesting shaping over its entire length. Sadly, this is hard to detect from photos because the U.S. Navy color scheme when Panthers were first-line aircraft called for Navy Blue paint; natural metal -- the Air Force "color scheme" -- would have shown that shape better.

Prototype Panthers didn't have the Navy Blue paint-job. There is a nice in-flight photo of the shiny prototype, but I couldn't find it. So this ground view will have to do.



Above are three in-flight photos of Panthers. The middle one has been widely reproduced over the years. This is odd, because it has a non-standard paint scheme; the lighter color on the lower areas wasn't official. Perhaps this scheme was experimental.

Both planes served with distinction during the Korean War, though the Panther wasn't a match for the MiG-15 fighters piloted by Russians and Chinese. So the Navy took two steps to correct this. One was a swept-wing version of the Panther that was dubbed the Cougar. The other was to procure a navalized version of the Sabre that took the name Fury that, in turn, was used for a non-swept wing Navy fighter that, ironically, was the basis for early Sabre design work.



posted by Donald at April 21, 2008


Those were two of my favorite planes as a kid. I had models of both. And the Panther was actually made from a blue plastic.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 21, 2008 9:16 PM

Yeah, it's all about the snout on the F-86. Plus, it's all mixed up in my mind with the Korean War. Valiant and stirring was what I felt when I saw the F-86 in the paper or on our Raytheon back then.

Posted by: ricpic on April 22, 2008 8:59 AM

I design on a flat surface... the computer screen. The skills necessary to design a working, living object... I haven't got a clue.

In multimedia, the 3D conceit is about as close as I approach creating real objects.

I've met some incredible engineers who worked for the armed forces. Amazingly, they came to me for instruction. A decade ago I taught the use of animation and 3D modeling software. The DOD sent me a few engineers who wanted to learn the latest software.

They showed me a couple of CDs they'd created, which turned out to be training manuals for maintaining aircraft. I was speechless.

"What in the world do you think that I can teach you?" I asked them.

"Don't worry about it," they told me. "We're getting paid to sit through the class anyway."

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 22, 2008 10:44 AM

Cool stuff. I'm feeling like a kid again, back among my model planes. Do kids these days still buy and glue together model planes?

Question for you? What role to "designers" play in the creation of airplanes? I've read about how cars are designed and made but know nothing about the process where planes are concerned. I suppose there's no general rule ... But is there a kind of continuum, from "all engineers, no designers" on the one hand to "loads of design, with the engineers valiantly hurrying to make sure the fancy ideas can work?" on the other?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 22, 2008 11:36 AM

Michael -- Some engineers are artistic, if not formally trained in art. There was the Swiss? bridge-builder whose name I forget who did marvelous concrete bridges admired by architects 80-some years ago.

As for planes, the need for solutions for various physical requirements tends to result in graceful objects, unlike the case for refrigerators, etc.

Back in the 40s, once some study had gone into a new plane, an engineer would come up with what were called "general arrangement" drawing -- simple front/side/top/bottom views with details such as windows, landing gear doors and that ilk. Once a GA had been settled on, refinement would take place via more drawings, wind-tunnel models (and results from tests), etc.

An engineer in the GA phase at the old Douglas plant in El Segundo was R.G. Smith, who did really fine aviation art on the side. For more info, see here.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 22, 2008 12:21 PM

Robert Maillart. Best known bridge is probably the Salginatobel, in Schiers, Switzerland.
At least one ivy-covered university I know of uses this bridge as an example of form and function, in a combined architecture/engineering course.

Posted by: Julie Brook on April 22, 2008 1:45 PM

In the sixties my mother dated a man in Beaverton, a former WWII navy pilot who had done well in real estate and mail order outdoor goods. Among other aircraft Mr. Davis owned a P-51 and an F-86. I don't know however if either was in flying shape.

Joe McConnell was a big hero to me as a kid.

Posted by: Larry on April 22, 2008 2:35 PM

Pretty indeed, although I'm still more of a fan of the Spitfire and Sea Fury (the latter suffering from the irony of being both the pinnacle of its kind *and* obsolescent before it ever left the ground, thanks to things like the Saber)

The German national aviation museum used to have a Super Saber right next to its arch-rival a Mig 17. Interesting contrast : very similar overall designs, but the Mig - reputedly at least as good a plane - looked really crudely banged together next to the grace and elegance of the F-86. The Mig has since been taken away.

They're still making them pretty. Couple of weeks ago I was at a airfield in India where the civil terminal is tacked onto the edge of an air force fighter base. Interesting seeing the latest and bestest Migs and Sukhois close up sharing a runway with 737s and Airbuses. The fighters were very pretty, surprisingly big and *loud*

Posted by: Alan Little on April 22, 2008 8:41 PM

The F9F was the real star of film version of The Bridges at Toko Ri, which I wrote about here. It was a nice looking airplane. A shark with wings, pretty much.

Posted by: Lexington Green on April 23, 2008 7:45 PM

German artist Gerhard Richter, possibly the most deservedly esteemed painter in the world, did multiple monochromatic paintings of fighter jets in the early 1960's, fairly realist.

Roy Lichtenstein also did several jet-fighter, one of which is called "Boom! F-111" (I'm probably misremembering the title) which is considered a 60's masterpiece of Pop.

Just two artist off the top of my head who have portrayed jet fighters in their work..

Posted by: Deschanel on April 24, 2008 2:47 PM

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