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No. 3125:
How Many Wings

Today, we're led on by what seems to be true. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

I snatched a copy of Jim Winchester's book, The World's Worst Aircraft, from my bookstore's remainders table. Not the first book with that title - I've seen at least two others. Of course no such selection can satisfy everyone. Winchester lists 150 "worst" airplanes, and I could add more. But he got my attention because almost ten percent of his planes had three or more wings. 

It's easy to see why we added wings. Early engines had very low power for their weight; so planes needed a lot of lift. Extra wings seemed to be the answer. Most early airplanes were biplanes. We had better engines by WW-I, and Fokker's first fighter-scout plane was his single-winged Eindecker. But those planes had to maneuver and turn on a dime. They needed to be more compact - less turning inertia. Two wings, much-shorter, solved that problem. And here the fun begins because, if two was better than one, wouldn't three be better than two? And so on. 

Maxim's Aeroplane
Hiram Maxim's failed many-winged aeroplaneIt twice got a few inches off the ground in the 1890's, flew as up to 50 yards, and finally crashed. (Image from the 1895 Century Magazine.)

Triplanes did indeed turn better. But consider how airfoils work: They speed the air-flow over the top and they slow it below. So the wing above and the wing below fight each other. The more wings, the closer we have to stack them. The more interference! Triplanes also needed more bracing. And that meant more drag. 

So the Sopwith Company built a triplane, and it did well in combat. But it was hard to maintain. They soon replaced it with the easy-to-maintain Sopwith Camel (Snoopy's biplane). But the Germans had seen the triplane, and Fokker quickly built his version - the Red Baron's famed triplane ...

... which we view as a great fighter. But it suffered structural failures. It was very hard to handle. It climbed slowly. Most German pilots hated it. The Red Baron scored only a quarter of his kills in one - then he himself died in it.

Meanwhile any number of builders tried four-winged quadruplanes. Every one failed. Fokker even tried a five-winged fighter that barely got off the ground. And that was far from the end of it. Wings take us up, shouldn't more wings be better? The 9-winged Caprioni seaplane crash-landed and broke up on its second take-off test. Wikipedia lists 26 such planes - all failures. 

The Armstrong-Whitworth F.K.10 two-seat quadruplane. Only fifty were made. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

We should've heeded nature's lesson. Some insects use tandem wings; but they fly by different aerodynamic rules. Birds are all simple monoplanes. Multwings are one more idea that seems so obvious. We cling to it long after its flaws have slapped our wrists many times. And it's just one such idea among so many.

We keep building flying automobilesornithopters, flying jetpacks, and many-winged airplanes. All can be made to work. Yet each has warned us, again and again that it's not effective. It's an odd thing about technology: If we believe it ought to work, we won't let it go. I suppose that has some value in the long run. But it does lead us into so many really strange dead ends. 

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

J. Winchester, The World's Worst Aircraft, (NY Metro Books, 2007). See the Wikipedia articles on Multiplane (aeronautics) and Wing Configuration.

Wikipedia also tells the strange story of 9-winged (3 tandem triplane wings) Caprioni Ca.60 -- one of the more bizarre multi-wing failures. It is matched by the Fokker V.8 which had 5 wings in a 3-2 tandem arrangement.

This episode was first aired on May 12, 2017