The “Second Design Revolution” in Hansen’s The Bird is on the Wing

Over the past century, advances in technology have occurred at an industrial scale, often leading to extraordinary feats. One such achievement was in the dramatic shift from biplanes to supersonic flight (Anderson and Anderson 78). It is for this very reason that James Hansen seeks to provide a splendid overview of the changes characterizing this nascent evolution in The Bird is on the Wing. With support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration History Office, Hansen produced an impressive work of literature while making use of an informative narrative. The so-called “second design revolution” features prominently in the book owing to its contribution in allowing engineers achieve supersonic flight. The first feature of “second design revolution” was a general willingness by designers to integrate new technology that had not yet been tried and tested. Secondly, designers began developing a dependency on wind-tunnel testing. The third and final feature of the “second design revolution” was the utilization of high-speed digital computers in the design process. This essay, therefore, seeks to explore these changes and their contribution to the development of supersonic flight.

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Firstly, the “second design revolution” began with the change in attitude among top designers who began incorporating new technology that had not been tested before.  A rule of thumb amongst the typical aerodynamic engineer during this era was that airplanes were to be developed using small incremental changes. This, therefore, meant that drastic changes were not acceptable during the design stage, with the practitioners expected to strictly adhere to the widely accepted rule book. The result of this policy was seen in the slow manner in which developments were being made. In other cases, projects would even stall completely due to the long waiting period. However, shifting focus to new promising technology that had not yet been vetted meant that designers could now toy around with these innovations in an attempt to better their prototypes. Their idea was to leave behind the design philosophy that was widely accepted in the planning of strut-and-wire biplane for novel techniques with the possibility of positive outcomes. They, therefore, stopped relying on previously successful airplanes and sought to carry out laboratory tests on the viability of the intended changes that ultimately led to supersonic flight.

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Secondly, an all-embracing wind-tunnel testing regimen was soon responsible for the “second design revolution”. Designers were now beginning to focus on including wind-tunnel testing starting from the preliminary stages of the blueprint, to the last phase. This particular tool had been in use during research studies when studying the effect that moving air would have on solid objects. The tubular passage would contain a powerful fan system fitted with sensors tasked with measuring the number of aerodynamic forces. Researchers envisioned the use of these tools as revolutionary since they would subsequently reverse the usual paradigm that had been in place when building airplanes. The “second design revolution “was thus able to pick momentum through the valuable data that they were able to gather from these tools. Early designers of the strut-and-wire had categorically stated that they had little faith in the accuracy of wind-tunnel data, which was why they never used it. The development of the mature propeller-driven airplane meant that designers were now better placed to make use of all available resources at their disposal, including wind-tunnel data. Intuitive designing was cast aside for a more empirical method that allowed improvements to be made and existing designs to be fine-tuned appropriately.

Thirdly, the “second design revolution” was punctuated by designers using high-speed digital computers in developing their blueprints. The development of digital computers was often viewed as being beneficial to nearly all spheres of industry and the primary reason why aeronautical engineers were quick to harness its potential. Early designers faced a plethora of challenges when developing their designs. To begin with they had to spend a majority of their working hours sitting on their desks in an attempt to draw all parts of the airplane they were about to develop or improve. The result was a slow process that was usually dragged further behind by minute mistakes and miscalculation, often returning to square one. Hansen opines that most of the errors made during the initial stages were as a result of placing too much trust on the brains behind the ideas without accepting their fallibility (Hansen). A solution to this problem came in the form of high-speed digital computers that now made it possible for designers to home in on their calculations while being able to home in on their configuration. The use of this technique from the preliminary phase made certain that accuracy was assured, therefore providing the designers with successes that they could build on. It was these cumulative changes that finally produced the first ever supersonic flight.

In finality, James Hansen affirms that it was, indeed, the “second design revolution” that was responsible for the development of supersonic. The designer’s willingness to integrate new technology, dependency on wind-tunnel data and the utilization of high-speed digital computers were prominent features of this revolution. It is, hence, through them that supersonic flight was birthed. 

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