Blighty’s Flying Wings
Tony Buttler recounts the brief but fascinating story of the Armstrong Whitworth AW.52
A modest number of pure flying-wing types have become airborne worldwide throughout the 115 years since the first powered flight.
Part of this configuration’s problem was its stability, in other words making the aeroplane sufficiently controllable in the air for an ordinary pilot to handle. Today, with modern electronically operated fly-by-wire controls and avionics, this is no longer an issue.
Since the end of World War One, the most famous British flying-wings have arguably been the Westland-Hill Pterodactyl series built in the 1920s and 1930s, and Armstrong Whitworth’s AW.52 family, the latter comprising a scale-model glider called the AW.52G and two full-scale jet-powered research aircraft. But just what is a flying-wing? The definition can of course be very broad, but for the focus of this article it’s simply an aircraft with little or no fuselage, a large-span wing and no conventional horizontal tailplane… what Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft (AW) described as a tailless aeroplane.
Armstrong Whitworth began to design flying-wings in 1942 and the first result was the AW.52G glider built completely in wood. This was essentially a scale model of the planned jet-powered machine and the two blueprints shared the same general layout, but the glider was never intended to be an exact replica.
It had a fixed tricycle undercarriage and a wing built around a D-type spar with one main girder, plus a structurally stiff nose skin made of metal-faced plywood, the latter providing a smooth surface to give laminar airflow (ie smooth, undisturbed airflow with no turbulence) on certain parts of the wing. Just the enclosure to the pilot’s and observer’s cockpits projected outside the lines of the wing profile and Flight magazine described the glider as: “a very near approach to the true all-wing aircraft.” Its span was 53ft 4in (16.25m), length 14ft 7 1/2in, wing area 445sq ft (41.39m²) and weight 6,000lb (2,722kg).
Design work on the AW.52G started in May 1943 and construction began in March 1944. Carrying the serial RG324, the glider made its maiden flight, from AW’s Baginton airfield near Coventry, in the hands of company test pilot Charles Turner-Hughes, on March 2, 1945; it was towed into the air by a tug conversion of an AW Whitley bomber.
The rest of this article is in the current issue of FlyPast, cover dated January 2019. It’s available in UK shops now or can be purchased via the website – www.flypast.com. Alternatively, you can download a digital edition from www.pocketmags.com – simply search ‘FlyPast’.