Functionality as inspiration :: Part I.

As I've said many times before, the work of Charlie Cunningham is a big influence on me. Charlie's father was a pilot and an interest in aeronautics planted the seeds for his unpainted aluminum creations, which seemed minimalist or crude (as the unkind said) on the surface but were found to be intricately thought out upon investigation. They were also far lighter, better handling, and easier to use/maintain (thanks to heavily modified or custom components) than most counterparts of the day. All business. Subjective aesthetic standards were secondary to performance in the field and repairability/long-term maintenance down the road.

When I think of this influence, I think of one of my favourite aircraft: the MiG-15. I don't think fondly of it because of its status as a warplane, but more as an embodiment of minimalist and functional execution that represented a marked leap forward in performance - despite the ominous task it was meant for. It wasn't the first jet of its kind, but it was the one that put a lot of the pieces together for modern fighter aircraft.

When the Korean War began in 1950, the United States had an early jet eventually known as the F-80 Shooting Star, a straight-winged plane mostly known now to aficionados as a trainer. While the UN forces had a jet age machine, the North Koreans had only propeller-driven relics at their disposal and the air war was initially very one-sided.

The North getting MiG-15s under the butts of trained pilots was a total game changer. The MiG-15 was incredibly light, fast, and easy to fly. The Russians used German research regarding wing sweep to make a swept wing fighter that was far more stable and maneuverable than any straight-winged plane. US fighters piloting F-80s and the F-84 Thunderjet (a straight-winged fighter-bomber) had their hands full dealing with this new threat.

This dichotomy, of course, was far more sinister than that of the holistically-minded Charlie Cunningham dealing with passive-aggressive snide remarks from those who strayed little from level top tubes, black shorts, black shoes, white socks, and shopworn copies of Eddie B's manual. I mean, you could die as opposed to being mildly annoyed.

The answer to the MiG-15 was the F-86 Sabre, also having swept wings. The initial F-86 was still behind the curve performance-wise, but was a little more refined and pilot-friendly (meaning: a heated and armoured cockpit). It did catch up as the war progressed. The F-86 was polished and smooth with countersunk holes and tidy labeling. The MiG-15 was hammered and riveted with no thoughts of the bearded vote at the air show concours d'elegance down the line...minimalist and effing rough. Want to fly it? Better put more clothes on and HTFU. Pilot protection? Your protection = your ability to shoot and not be shot and you've got an airborne sports machine to aid you.

Korean War era jets (as well as early sports cars and formula racers) are inspiring to me. A new age in performance borne by fundamental changes (jet engines vs. propellers + swept wings vs. straight ones + power/weight ratio mindful of handling vs. brute horsepower over all variables) and small groups of men building these new machines by hand. Aluminum, analog instruments, and fresh challenges.

A similar arc exists with Charlie Cunningham exercising similar drive and enthusiasm towards riding bikes in the dirt, as opposed to making all our benefit. It's an important distinction to make and I'll talk more about in my next post(s)... 

Continued in Part II...

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Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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