To mark the Society’s Centenary in 1966, the Students' and Graduates’ section asked some of the great names of aviation to predict what Aeronautics would be like in 2016. RAE aerodynamics expert, Dietrich Kuchemann took up the challenge, but did he get it right? We asked NAL volunteer Eur Ing MIKE STANBERRY MRAeS, who was a student member in 1966, to find out.

It is dangerous trying to predict the future. It is even more dangerous for your esteem if you are an academic. Dr Kuchemann was a researcher at the RAE and clearly his topic was aerodynamics. His lecture was given at a time when the UK aero industry was riding high with many diverse aircraft designs being developed and many one off research aircraft that were all as different as chalk from cheese. It was an exciting time and it acted as a magnet to this reviewer into what looked to be the most exciting industry that ever existed.

Dr Kuchemann was driven by formulae and his formulae could define the evolution in aircraft design that he envisaged. He extrapolated from the classical aircraft wing to swept wings to slender wings to waveriders. His presentation only considers commercial airliners. Remember the Boeing 707 was in service in 1958 and the 747 was to fly in 1969. Today's aircraft still look like these, and indeed I defy you to tell the difference, from a distance, from the early version of the 747 to those in service today. There is hardly any basic difference between the profile of a 707 and an Airbus. So nothing has changed in 50 years.  Or has it?

When Dr Kuchemann strayed off his topic he was still obsessed with formulae describing the routes between linear cities of about 2 hours apart, which was a sort of utopian design for the world.

Dr Kuchemann might have had a different approach to his presentation had been an anaylst or consultant rather than an aerodynamicist. These were breeds of homo sapiens that were still yet to be discovered deep in the jungle. To present this paper they might have looked at the requirements for, and external constraints on, the design of aircraft. We of course have the luxury of 20/20 hindsight vision. Dr Kuchemann considered aerodynamics as the driver to the future and did not consider the requirements and constraints on the design. How would he have known that the UK Government would have run out of money just a couple of years later and the Labour Government would cancel many of the more interesting aircraft.

Nor would he have known about terrorism. Even though the current 747 looks the same as the originals, thanks to Lockerbie, it is restructured to withstand a bomb blast in the cargo bay. This does not seem to have helped the Russian Airbus recently.

He would have been pleased to have seen Concorde as vindication of his aerodynamic knowledge, but would not have known about the effect of hikes in oil prices making it uneconomic and thus aircraft reverted back to his classic design.

His talk about using kerosene or hydrogen fuels remains the same today but he would not have known the engine design would be driven by environmental concerns, including noise and pollution, and the new biofuel would be grown in a field.

His concern with the aerodynamics governing the development in wing design could not have allowed him to know that it would be the development of composite structures that would drive wing design and hence aerodynamics. Nor would he have known about digital computers taking over the control of an aircraft to such an extent that if he were to stare out at the wing of a modern Airbus he would be horrified that many wing panels spent their time 'doing things'. I dread to think how he would cope flying in a Dreamliner looking at the wing under load. It would be another nine years before Steven Spielberg's Jaws film would hit the screen so he would never have thought about the advantages of 'sharklets'. All this leads to the conclusion that advances do not come from theoretical scientists but engineers. It has been the engineer that has improved aerodynamic efficiency. Though perhaps that is something that today’s students can discuss!

Before I am thought to be too hard on Dr Kuchemann I should admit I fell into the same trap as he did at about the same time. In a report to my company I stated that the digital computer would not replace the analogue computer as the autopilot. This assertion was based on the maximum clock rate of the then microprocessor not being fast enough to deal with the frequencies need in stabilisation. I had not considered developments in computer clock speeds.

I also have some bad news for Dr Kuchemann if he were to take a flight in a modern aircraft. Given all the constraints on passengers, security and the need for airlines to make a profit, he would find the whole flight experience most unpleasant. He could now only dream of a comfortable seat, leg room and individual attention that he would have been used to.

In summary, a subject matter expert is not the best person to look into the future. There are now methodologies for doing this which include requirements analysis and a holistic look at constraints among the many techniques in the analyst's tool box. I also conclude that it is the engineers and technologists that make things meet their requirements. He did get one thing very right when at the end of his section 4 he said 'aviation needs a European basis'.

You can read Dr Kuchemann’s lecture, Possible Types of Flying Vehicle in the Future, and then post your comments below to tell us what you think of the lecture, or even to give your own predictions for 2066. A piece on Prof A. A. Lombard’s predictions on propulsion systems in 2016 will be posted later in the year.

Mike Stanberry
3 January 2016