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How did the experimental nuclear airplane engine work?

In the 1940’s there was testing of using nuclear power to power a bomber aircraft. How did it work?

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6 Responses to “How did the experimental nuclear airplane engine work?”

  1. paducahbill said :

    They would have to boil water and then eject the water across a turbine to produce the thrust. It is not very realistic.

  2. Floid said :

    Just search for “nuclear ramjet”

  3. Jamie 9q said :

    It got cancelled before they completed the plane.

  4. Adam W said :

    Read the Ramjet article, quite interesting. The plan was for incoming cool air from the front to be heated by the reactor. The heated air would expand out the back, pushing the craft as it expanded.

    The only reason I jumped in here – note the name of the test site: Jackass Flats! How come there aren’t residential places with cool names like that!

  5. mike1942f said :

    No, late 50’s. The engine ran very hot and the heating of the gases was to be used to drive turbines to force air in for heating and for thrust. For a number of reasons, I believe it was only tested on the ground in Hanford and never put in a plane which might crash. I believe the exhaust was or could be radioactive.
    There is a really funny science fiction story about a nuclear powered steam driven airplane (steam drives turbines that drive propellers) that supposedly was built and has sat on the end of runway in Maine for years. As it is announced that the plane is to be decommissioned and destroyed, the crew who are all live steam fanatics with home steam railroads and steam cars, decide to fire it up and take off. Then the story gets involved in the cold war and they decide to fly around the world and land the plane on an ice island in the arctic to either claim the land or rescue scientists or both (weak memory here.)
    says it started with studies in 46 with most activity 49-63
    This says it did fly in a modified B36 and did power the craft.

  6. murky303 said :

    In May, 1946, the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project was started by the Air Force. NEPA was replaced by the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program in 1951. The ANP program included provisions for studying two different types of nuclear-powered jet engines, General Electric’s Direct Air Cycle and Pratt & Whitney’s Indirect Air Cycle.

    ANP also contained plans for two B-36s to be modified by Convair under the MX-1589 project, one of the B-36s was to be used to study shielding requirements for an airborne reactor while the other was to be the X-6.

    The idea was to use an onboard nuclear reactor to provide heat to run turboprop aircraft engines, thus avoiding the need for inflight refueling and creating the ultimate intercontinental bomber aircraft.

    Unfortunately, shielding to allow crew to actually run the aircraft was too heavy (no such thing as small computers back then) and the project was cancelled by the Kennedy administration after its priority was reduced under Eisenhower. The reactor and two GE turbofans are still at Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (too radioactive to move safely).

    A B-36 bomber was modified to take the R-1 one-megawatt sodium-cooled test reactor – it was called the NB-36 “Crusader” – but it was incredibly impractical. The bomb-bay of the aircraft was filled with the removable R-1 reactor and liquid sodium heat exchanger, reducing its usefulness as a carrier of nuclear weapons to overseas targets. Eventually, the program was canceled because of improvements in conventionally-powered bomber aircraft and budgetary reasons.

    Project Pluto was a nuclear-powered cruise missile. Same problem – shielding to make the thing safe to manipulate prior to launch would have been too heavy to be practical (plus, there was no advantage to a nuclear reactor for a cruise missile compared to a jet – the Regulus, which was a radio-controlled, conventionally-powered jet fighter with a nuclear weapon onboard was the first operational cruise missile, in the 1950s).


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