Swept Wing Challenges
The NACA so rapidly focused its attention on swept planforms that, within 2 years of the end of the Second World War, George Gray, author of a popular yet surprisingly detailed study of the Agency, could already write: "Just how far the sweepback principle can be applied with resulting advantage is a question. . . . At about 90 percent of the speed of sound both sweepback and low aspect ratio begin to be of value, and wings that combine the two features seem to offer a promising choice. At about Mach number 1.50, a sweepback of 60 degrees seems necessary to escape the backward flare of the Mach angle. . . . At Mach number 2.00, the angle is so acute that it is impossible to avoid it and still preserve the wings. It may be that designers preparing for flight at this speed will return to wings of low angles of sweep, and place their main dependence for drag reduction on thinning the profiles, lowering the aspect ratio, and sharpening the edges of wings.” By 1950, this grow
ing confidence in the old-new swept planform had resulted in transonic and supersonic research airplanes, a variety of military prototypes, and two operational jet fighters that would shortly clash over North Korea: the American F-86 Sabre (first flight in October 1947) and, in the Soviet Union, the MiG-15 (first flight in December 1947).
Swept wing aircraft, for all their high-speed advantages, posed daunting stability, control, and handling qualities challenges. Foremost of these was pitch-up at low and high speeds, resulting from deteriorating longitudinal stability. A swept wing airplane’s lateral-directional stability was compromised as well by so-called "dihedral effects.” Swept wing aircraft with excessive dihedral experienced pronounced combined rolling and yawing "Dutch roll” motions, which would be unacceptable on both production civil and military designs. Such motions would induce airsickness in passengers on large aircraft and, on bomber, fighter, and attack aircraft, prevent accurate tracking of a maneuvering target or accurate bomb release. (Indeed, it was largely because of this kind of behavior that the U. S. Air Force did not proceed with production of Northrop’s YB-49 flying wing jet bomber.) Adverse yaw posed another problem. At higher speeds, as a swept wing plane rolled from aileron
deflection, it experienced higher drag and loss of lift involving the lowered wing, generating a tendency of the airplane to turn (reverse) into the direction of the raised wing, effectively doing the opposite of what the pilot intended. Adverse yaw could be caused by aeroelastic effects as well. That swept wing aircraft would possess behavior characteristics significantly different than conventional straight wing designs did not come as a surprise to the NACA or other aerodynamic researchers in America and overseas. But all recognized the need to complement theory and ground-test methodologies with flight research.
The peculiarities of swept wing aircraft, at a time when early jet aircraft lacked the power-to-weight advantages of later designs, could—and often did—prove fatal. For example, Boeing designed the B-47, America’s first large swept wing aircraft, with pod-mounted engines and a broad, highly tapered, thin swept wing. During flight-testing at higher speeds, test pilots found aileron input to roll the aircraft would twist the wing, the aileron effectively acting as a trim-tab does on a control surface. The twisted wing would overcome the rolling moment produced by the aileron, rolling the aircraft in the opposite direction. Aeroelastic structural divergence caused several accidents of the B-47 during its flight-testing and service introduction, forcing the Air Force to limit its permissible airspeed to 425 knots, as high as it could be safely flown if roll reversal were to be avoided. As a result, Boeing built its successors, the XB-52 and the Model 367-80 (prototype for the KC-135 family and inspiration for the civil 707), with much thicker wing roots and structures that were torsion resistant but that could still flex vertically to absorb structural loads and gust-induced loads during flight.