Science and technology is constantly moving forward, but that doesn’t mean that some records will just continue to be broken. While planes with piston engines are still being developed, many roles nowadays are being fulfilled by jets. Therefore, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that the fastest propeller-driven airplane was actually born during the Second World War. However, we’re not really sure which one would it be.
You may think that describing such record is simple – whichever one was the fastest is the record holder. But there are some layers to this question that we’d like to explore. But, first things first, the official record holder is Grumman F8F Bearcat – American single-engine carrier-based fighter aircraft.
It took off for its maiden flight in August 1944 and was a mighty impressive aircraft. It was so potent, so quick and so versatile it managed to stay in service up until 1963, but even then it never stopped flying. AT this point enthusiasts wanted to get their hands on one and many did. Grumman F8F Bearcat became popular between acrobatic flying pilots and air racers. Of course, for these purposes plane had to be heavily modified. That was how the fastest of them all – the Rare Bear – was born.
Rare Bear, extremely modified F8F Bearcat, dominated Reno Air Races for decades. It was just too fast for others to even think of competing with it. Its official record is 850.24 km/h and so it is the fastest airplane with piston engine in the world. Or is it?
Rare Bear holds the official record, but another heavily modified airplane, based on British Hawker Sea Fury. This fighter plane was also born at the end of the Second World War. Seeing that war is pretty much over, RAF lost interest in Hawker Fury, but the Royal Navy still wanted the fighter, so a Sea Fury version was developed. It was amazingly quick for its time, but, when got even quicker after it finished its service and got into hands of acrobatic pilots and air racers. Unofficial record of highest speed of propeller-driven airplane belongs to a heavily modified Hawker Sea Fury – 880 km/h.
So we know which airplane holds the record. But both of the contenders were heavily modified and it is kind of interesting to see, which airplane was the fastest straight from the factory. That would be German Dornier Do 335 Pfeil. It was introduced at very late stages of WW2 and didn’t manage to prove its full potential. However, we do know it was the fastest propeller-driven airplane in the entire war.
Dornier Do 335 Pfeil had two engines mounted in the fuselage and each one of them drove a separate propeller – one was pushing the airplane, while the other one was pulling. This peculiar arrangement meant that Do 335 Pfeil could reach speeds of up to 765 km/h and even if one of the engines was turned off or disabled it could still fly at 563 km/h. Only 11 fighter planes were delivered in 1945 until Americans took over the factory, but those Allied pilots who witnessed the Do 335 Pfeil could not believe its speed at level flight.
Now the only surviving example is in a museum, so we will never know what speed could it reach in a dive. However, we do know that a British Supermarine Spitfire reached 1,110 km/h speed in a dive in 1952. That’s the closest propeller-driven airplane ever got to the speed of sound. That is an impressive performance, but it is far from the actual fastest plane in the world.
That would be Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, which in 1976 reached 3,530 km/h. This strategic reconnaissance aircraft is retired from 1988, but is still regarded as one of the best airplane designs ever.
US Diplomatic mission in Russia is facing some issue, since a couple of weeks ago Russia announced it has to reduce its personnel by 755 people. While it is an interesting move as a reaction to the tightening of the sanctions, we are not going to talk about politics. This turn of event made us remember the building of US Embassy in Moscow. Will it be empty now? Do you know why is it called New Office Building?
First things first – US Embassy in Moscow is not going to be empty. Employees of US Diplomatic mission in Russian Federation are scattered around through a number of cities and different facilities. Also, while we’re on the subject, Russians are going to suffer from this the most. American citizens, who will be forced to leave this diplomatic mission, will go home and will receive positions somewhere else in the diplomatic corps. However, most of people who are getting fired since the 1st of September are going to be Russians. Furthermore, because of lack of human resources, some consular services will take longer to fulfil. So it is a nice publicity move, but it will mostly affect Russian people. It did bring our attention to the building though.
The main building of the Embassy of the United States in Moscow, called the New Office Building, looks recently built. This is kind of odd, having in mind that US had an embassy in Soviet Union. We looked at why the building had to be changed and found out it was always getting spied. That had to be one of the motifs to move to a modern, more secure type of building.
For example, bugs were discovered in the old office building of Embassy of the United States in Moscow in 1964. It was removed and everything was checked, but the spying eye did not look away from the building.
In 1977 there was a mysterious fire on eighth floor of the building. Some valuable documents were lost. While we can be sure that some of them were lost in fire, some of them were definitely stolen. It is known that some of the fire fighters were KGB agents, who were well-informed about the structure of the building and information kept on that particular floor.
And so a new building was needed. Fire did not damage the old office building too badly, but it was too easy to spy. Constructions were officially started in 1979 and in 1985 they found bugs in the new building. They were installed by construction workers or, more precisely, KGB agents dressed like construction workers. The spread of spying equipment was so vast it actually caused a bit of a diplomatic problem. US did not let Soviet diplomats to move to their new embassy in Washington, until American workers were allowed to finish the construction of the new embassy in Moscow.
Of course, before the building could be finished, part of it had to be destroyed, since the possibility of spying devices was so large. The New Office Building was finally opened in 2000. The top floors, built by American construction workers, are now used to deal with classified information, while the lower ones are dedicated to consular work. Still, who knows if it is not being spied at the moment, but some believe it is actually a piece of spying equipment in itself.
The very top floors look different, because there are virtually no windows in them. Igor Korotchenko, editor of a magazine called National Defence (Национальная оборона) once commented that the top floors of the main building of the Embassy of the United States are actually an antenna listening to “Moscow air”. Although US does partake in a healthy dose of spying itself, this theory sounds funny and almost ironic, having in mind why these floors look the way they do.
Car manufacturers have to protect their image. While everyone knows that the looks of a car are very important, some companies make sure to establish their headquarters in amazingly beautiful buildings. In this article we look at three car manufacturers who are unexpectedly known for the architecture as well as good cars.
Why exterior aesthetics of a building matters for car companies? Well, as we said, it is part of company‘s image. Automakers are trying to put their best foot forward and to not be associated with something ugly or boring. While a bad car model will soon be forgotten, an ugly building is here to stay. These three, however, are anything but ugly.
BMW Headquarters in Munich was built from 1968 till 1972 – it was finished for summer Olympics, since the building is standing very close to the Olympic village. Immediately it became recognized as one of Munich’s architectural greats and up until now people love how it blends into the skyline of the city. In fact, this 101 metre tall skyscraper has a status of a protected historic building.
BMW tower is actually composed of four big cylinders, made to mimic cylinders of the engine. Interestingly, they are not even touching the ground as they are supported by the central column. Because a four cylinder engine is very important in BMW’s history, the building is made to reflect that. There is a museum building right next to the skyscraper and it is made to represent a cylinder head. Both buildings were designed by the Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer.
McLaren Technology Centre in Woking
McLaren is a famous supercar manufacturer that has a rich history in motorsports. Its headquarters, called McLaren Technology Centre, are located in Woking, Surrey, England and consist of four buildings. Everything is accomplished here: street car production, racing car manufacturing, technology development and so on. It is also home of McLaren Formula 1 team.
The construction of the complex started in 1999 and the first building was completed in 2003. However, the automotive plant was not ready until 2011, which is also when production of MP4-12C, the first model of the reborn brand, started. The complex looks very futuristic and features clean lines and green surroundings. There are four artificial lakes in the area, the biggest one is places side by side with the main building and together they form a circle. The McLaren Technology Centre was designed by architect Norman Foster.
While no one knows for sure how much did it cost to build this complex, the investment was huge. But McLaren says it was necessary – it is much nicer to work in a clean, beautiful and silent place. It is more inspiring and is likely to attract the best engineers and experts.
Wiesmann factory and showroom in Dülmen
Wiesmann was one of those little, unique car manufacturers that disappeared because of financial problems. It was established in 1988 and released its first car in 1993. The speciality of Wiesmann has always been little, lightweight roadsters with running gear from BMW performance cars. They were fast, high-quality and rather beautiful. Even the Wiesmann logo – a shiny gecko – was quite unique and loved by automotive enthusiasts. For the most part, factory building was a very simple industrial construction, but everything changed in 2008.
In 2008 Wiesmann built an addition to serve as a showroom. And, sure enough, it was shaped like a gecko. Many car magazines and TV shows showed this new feature of Wiesmann factory every time they were speaking about brand’s cars. However, not everyone knows that this gecko was made from wood. Sadly, it didn’t bring the company financial luck and Wiesmann was liquidated in May 2014.
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People of Kaunas have a new subject for public debates – the growing prices of public transportation tickets. While paying more for the same service is never a pleasant change, the quality of it is about to increase dramatically. Kaunas is going to get rid of old Škoda 14Tr trolleybuses, which is absolutely necessary. Why? What is the Škoda 14Tr and why it has no place in a modern city? We talked about this with “Kauno Autubusai” – the company taking care of public transport in Kaunas.
Kaunas, the second largest Lithuanian city, can be hardly imagined without its iconic trolleybuses. While there is nothing special or unique about public transportation in this city, trolleybuses specifically have a deep relation with Kaunas image. They have been around since 1965, when the first line was opened. Since then a lot has changed, including trolleybuses, and people grew to love them.
But it is a love-hate relationship, actually, because the majority of Kaunas trolleybuses are old and dreadful Škoda 14Tr vehicles. They are extremely noisy, very hot in summer and very cold in winter, have high floor and are very uncomfortable for the driver. All of this is about to change – Kaunas streets will be free from “Made in Czechoslovakia” trolleybuses in about two years.
While brand new trolleybuses are good news for all regular users of public transport, it also means that ticket prices are increasing from 1st of August. Electronic tickets are going to cost 70 euro cents, instead of the current 58, and the paper ones you buy from the driver – 1 euro. People really disliked the change, but they will get better quality services for the money.
Not only Škoda 14Tr’s are making people laugh with their “Made in Czechoslovakia” signs on windows (despite most of them being made after the Czech Republic and Slovakia split apart), but they also torture passengers with heat, cold and sometimes water. They are technically and morally old and there is no way around it. “Kauno Autobusai” has 98 of them, their average age – 28 years. Together they covered more than 160 million kilometres and were rebuilt several times. While you can fix them up to keep them running safely, it is impossibe to introduce such things as low floor – which allows older people as well as parents with baby buggies and disabled people to get in easier -, more comfortable seating or air conditioning.
Škoda 14Tr trolleybuses had been manufactured since 1981, although first prototypes showed up in 1972-1974. The last trolleybuses of this model left the factory in 2004, although production was significantly reduced in 1998. In total, 3888 14Tr’s were made and delivered to various cities, mostly in Eastern Europe and Soviet Union. Currently, Kiev, Vilnius and Riga have the largest amount of these trolleybuses, but they are slowly moving away.
Technical look around
Not only Škoda 14Tr trolleybuses are pretty dreadful to ride in, they are also extremely unreliable at this point. The problem is that all electric gubbins, including the motor, are placed underneath the floor of the trolleybus (that is why the floor is so high and you have to climb some steps to get in) and is not sealed in any way. Water gets in and damages these parts all the time and workers at “Kauno Autobusai” have to race against time every night to fix trolleybuses and make sure that in the morning a sufficient number of them will be running.
Škoda 14Tr has a 100 kW motor, which is enough to propel it to a speed of 65 km/h. It accelerates quite loudly, though, because gears in the final drive are basically worn out. The trollleybus has three sets of double doors, all opening to the inside. They are not very wide, which is not helping the already troubled ingress for some people. There are 29 seats and 71 people can travel standing, according to vehicle data.
The driver’s cabin is really not that great either. The steering wheel is not adjustable in any way whatsoever, so it is difficult to get comfortable. Controls are laid out randomly, although drivers find everything just out of experience. Seats are uncomfortable and the lack of air conditioning means that “Kauno Autobusai” had to fit simple fans, usually hanging above the driver’s head.
However, as unreliable and uncomfortable as Škoda 14Tr trolleybuses may be, “Kauno Autobusai” ensured us that they are completely safe to use. All of them have to go through thorough technical inspection twice a year and are maintained constantly. Every night workers fix minor defects and major repairs may take several days. “Kauno Autobusai” has a reserve of trolleybuses for such cases.
So where from here?
So now you know that replacing all tired Škoda 14Tr trolleybuses is absolutely necessary. And that is why ticket prices are going to increase. At the moment, it is still not decided which trolleybuses Kaunas will have, but some information is already known. They are going to be about the same capacity, but they will feature low floor, air conditioning and some other comfort equipment. And, of course, they will be much less of a problem in repair shops.
Saulius Alekna, the manager of the Kaunas’ trolleybus park, told us that in around two years Kaunas should have no Škoda 14Tr buses on the streets. All of them will be replaced with brand new units, but the manufacturer of them has not been decided yet. There is a contest under way and it is still not clear who will make the best offer. Alekna said that the company is looking forward to having electric buses as well, but only when the technology is cheaper, meaning that in the foreseeable future Kaunas will still be running trolleybuses. Think decades before they – and normal buses – are replaced with electric units.
But trolleybuses are definitely good enough. The contact network is already in place and these vehicles are very eco-friendly.
10 Interesting facts we learned while visiting “Kauno Autobusai”
Kaunas’s trolleybus park consists of 155 trolleybuses, 98 of them are Škoda 14Tr; 42 – Solaris Trollino 12; 15 – articulated Berkhof trolleybuses. 311 drivers are driving them.
Together, all these trolleybuses have covered more than 200 million kilometres in their lifetime, but 160 million of them belong to Škoda 14Tr.
Every day, Škoda 14Tr trolleybuses cover 14 thousand kilometres in Kaunas.
While new trolleybuses have only two pedals, Škoda 14Tr has three. Two of them are brakes: the central pedal engages electric brakes and the left one – pneumatic. Braking with the electric motor is useful when the trolleybus only needs to slow down a bit without coming to a complete stop.
While it is obvious that Škoda 14Tr is not a modern vehicle, it still has 2 kilometres of cables. “Kauno Autobusai” found out about it by themselves while repairing these trolleybuses. In modern trolleybuses this number is several times larger.
Not only Škoda 14Tr is an unreliable machine, it is also an easy target for pranksters who routinely pull contacts off the wires, immobilizing the trolleybus. It is easy to do so as the ropes holding contact poles are exposed. There is also a switch which can be easily deactivated from the outside, turning the trolleybus completely off. We were kindly asked not to show it to you.
In Lithuanian, contact poles are called “trolleybus moustache”.
How do trolleybuses know where to go when the lines split? There are two ways of dealing with this situation. In some spots there are switches that can connect to one or another line. There are blue arrow signs allowing the trolleybus drivers to know which one is engaged and they can change it with remote controllers. However, in not-so-modern splits, Škoda 14Tr trolleybuses have to use a different trick – when the trolleybus is coasting, it will always go left and, when it is accelerating, it will always go right. This is why it slows down so much in these splits or accelerates just before them.
All trolleybuses in Kaunas, except two, are painted green. “Kauno Autobusai” had an idea of painting all of them red (and they did with these two), to match the red buses. But they changed their mind, because it just didn’t look right and people seem to love trolleybuses being green and buses red. The green colour also fits the green character of the vehicle.
The number plates of most trolleybuses in Kaunas start with BEE, but it is just a coincidence. Most of them were registered at the same time, despite their different age. It is because some time ago trolleybuses didn’t need to have number plates at all – it is not like they can leave the city anyway.
While Škoda 14Tr is by far the oldest trolleybus currently being used to carry passengers in Kaunas, sometimes you can see a much older Škoda 9Tr passing by. But it is not taking regular passengers. It is a party trolleybus, with tables, audio equipment and a light show installed inside. Anyone can book it for their personal holiday – the first hour costs 100 euros and all subsequent hours – 50. The driver will take you wherever you want to go with only one limitation – contact lines have to be available. There is also a dancing pole at the back, which, we were told, becomes the centre of the party.
Who knows, maybe someday Škoda 14Tr will become a party trolleybus too. The company said that they are going to keep at least one when the rest will be scrapped little by little with the introduction of new machines. We are not sad to see them go, but it is good we got to ride in it now so that we can better appreciate this change.
Have you ever thought that bicycles for men are a bit silly? If your feet slip off the pedals you’re in a big trouble as you get yourself caught on that weirdly high horizontal crossbar. But bicycles marketed for women do not have this straight horizontal piece. Why? Wouldn’t it be better if all bicycles did not have this potential safety-hazard?
No, that prominent crossbar is there for a reason. It makes the bicycle frame much stiffer and stronger. Because bicycles only touche the ground on two distant spots, there is a lot of bending force in the middle of the bike, which could actually brake it, if materials from which it was built were not so good. In the early days, bicycles often were made from wood, so that cross member was actually a crucial part for structural integrity. But why women’s bikes don’t have them then?
In the early days of riding bicycles women enjoyed wearing skirts and dresses. Lifting one’s leg over such a high horizontal crossbar was less than desirable – it was inconvenient and also could reveal an ‘inappropriate amount’ of leg. Which, of course, was a huge no-no back in a day. That is why women’s bicycle was invented with a slanted crossbar. It made the entire frame weaker and wobblier, but girls and women were not supposed to ride their bikes as hard as men did – it was not an activity recommended for ladies.
Nowadays we have better materials for bike manufacturing and that horizontal crossbar is not necessary anymore for cyclists. Without it, you can easily mount your bicycle and face less risks of injuring your family jewels. However, the tradition of separating male and female bicycles is still very much here, if you look at the ads manufacturers are putting out.
Of course, professional bicycles still have that dangerous horizontal crossbar, because it adds stiffness without adding excess weight.
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