Aviation Week And The Bomb

by Bill Sweetman
Aug 13, 2015

To read any contemporary report of the dropping of the first nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to have a glimpse of how much that event changed the world. Destruction on that scale from air attack was not new - Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and other cities had already suffered such damage - but the implications of the fact that only one weapon was needed now, and that the bomb would not remain a U.S. monopoly forever, had not begun to sink in. The front-page headlines of Aviation News (a publication that later became incorporated into Aviation Week) on August 13, 1945, was concerned by the impact of the shuddering halt to wartime aircraft production. 

Enough had been said in public about atomic energy to make the editors wonder about the possibilities for nuclear aircraft propulsion - unfortunately, few if any aircraft engineers had even thought about the idea, and to make things more confusing, jet engines were just coming off the wartime secret list. Aviation News' report correctly noted that an atomic aircraft engine would not need air for combustion, but failed to recognize that it would still need a working fluid to transform energy into motive power - hence the prediction of wingless machines operating above the atmosphere. 

On the other hand, the report was correct in predicting that atomic-powered flight was a long way off. Bill Stout, quoted in the story as saying that it would not happen in his lifetime, was quite correct: when the creator of the Ford Tri-Motor passed on, 11 years later, the Convair NB-36H was flying with a working, but non-propulsive, reactor, and General Electric had run a nuclear jet engine on the ground, but the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project never reached its goal. Some recent studies have suggested that a nuclear unmanned air vehicle might be a technical possibility, but it is not a political one. 

It was as a weapon, not as an engine, that the nuclear bomb would change aviation. Without it, the U.S. and the Soviet Union could not realistically have threatened one another with air attack, let alone missiles. The Cold War spurred the development of long-range jet aircraft, rockets large enough for space exploration, and automated systems of all kinds, from the Northrop Snark's astro-inertial navigation suite and massive command-and-control War Rooms to the simplest guided weapons. But in August 1945, nobody saw that coming. 

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