Hold on to your shovel, it’s time to clear the snow!, Part 1

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This truck equipped with a Klimov RD-45 or VK-1 turbojet engine was one of the many vehicles used for snow clearance at Vnukovo international airport, Moscow, early 1958. W.E. Casley, “Bea-line to Moscow.” The Aeroplane, 4 April 1958, 470.

To quote Princess Irulan, a minor character from the rather disappointing 1984 science fiction movie Dune, a beginning is a very delicate time. Should yours truly begin this article with the vehicle shown in the photo above, extracted from the pages of the weekly The Aeroplane, one of the great British aviation magazines of the 20th century, or should I go the beginning and move from there? Decision, decision. Many people who know me know only too well how much I love making decisions. Oh well, enough procrastination. Yours truly will not make you wait for the answer to the greatest riddle of all, the mother of all riddles. Who… is… Batman? Sorry, wrong story.

And yes, I realise that the story that concerns us today takes us rather far from the wonderful world of aviation and space. Still, as a friend and former colleague once told me, in the late 1980s, there is more to life than airplanes. Thank you, comrade C.F., I needed to hear that but I must admit the comment stung a bit at the time.

In early 1958, a delegation made up of almost 20 British officials left London aboard a Vickers Viscount airliner operated by government-owned British European Airways Corporation, or BEA – an acronym that explains the odd spelling of the word beeline in the title of the article where your humble servant found the aforementioned photo. These gentlemen were flying to Moscow to discuss an air agreement between the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) involving the right to fly to that country’s capital. And yes, there is a Viscount in the world class collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

One of the most impressive things the British saw at Vnukovo international airport, near Moscow, was arguably the variety of vehicles used for snow clearance. Conventional snow ploughs moved the white stuff on the edge of a taxiway. Special ploughs then moved in to push the snow upward, through a chute, from which it fell into trucks that queued up behind the ploughs. If the airport authorities felt the need to remove the residual ice from the parking area, they called in a tractor that towed a large and heavy roller studded with long iron spikes. After that came the “pièce de résistance” and the topic of our article.

This was a large truck fitted with a fuel tank containing a few thousand litres (several hundred Imperial or U.S. gallons) of jet fuel on the back and a jet engine with a fish tail nozzle on the front. To blast away most of the already broken ice sheet, the operator of the truck simply opened up the jet engine. Conventional snow ploughs then rolled in to move the pieces of ice. Any ice left on the ground was vaporised by the heat of the exhaust gases pouring out of the jet engine. According to the airport authorities, the truck-mounted jet engine worked in temperatures as low as - 25° Celsius (almost - 15° Fahrenheit).

How amazing is that, my reading friend? And please note that this is no April Fool’s joke. Better yet, the truth is that the British themselves may have pioneered the use of jet engines for snow removal, in England and Wales, near Grantham and Dowlais Top, and possibly elsewhere, during the terrible winter of 1946-47. No later than February 1947, the Royal Air Force (RAF) provided two Power Jets W.2 turbojet engines to somebody, which mounted them on a flatcar. This snow blower on steroids proved able to clear almost 70 metres (225 feet) of snow, up to 135 centimetres (54 inches) deep, in 5 minutes. It seemingly helped to free one or more trains which had been stuck for a few days. This being said (typed?), the jet-powered snow blower may also have blown off some of the ballast that stabilised the railway tracks. Given this, such vehicles were seemingly not used very often, if at all, in the United Kingdom after 1947.

Would you care to see a brief video of the jet powered snow blower in action, my reading friend? Say no more, your wish is my command.

Incidentally, a version of the W.2 was put in limited production in late 1943 by world famous British aeroengine maker Rolls-Royce Limited. The Welland was the first turbojet engine used on an Allied aircraft, the Gloster Meteor if you must know, during the Second World War. The first RAF squadron equipped with this jet fighter went into action in July 1944.

Interestingly, the jet engine used at Vnukovo international airport probably had a British connection. Back in 1946, before the Cold War really began to bite, the newly elected government of the United Kingdom allowed Rolls-Royce to export some Nene turbojet engines to USSR. This well meaning, if somewhat naive effort to improve relations with the Soviet government was a gift from heaven for its aircraft industry. You see, my reading friend, no engine of Soviet design could compare to the Nene, which was one of the most powerful engines in the world at the time. The experimental design bureau headed by Vladimir Yakovlevich Klimov was ordered to reverse engineer the British engine in order to mass produce it in the USSR.

You may remember that a February issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee dealt with another case of reverse engineering, namely that involving the most modern bomber of the Second World War, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, but I digress.

Initially manufactured as the RD-45, the Soviet version of the Nene was quickly improved, thus becoming the VK-1. These engines powered one of the most famous fighter airplanes of the 20th Century, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 – the great rival of another highly famous fighter plane of the 20th Century, the North American F-86 Sabre. And yes, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum has a Sabre made in Canada, by Canadair Limited of Cartierville, near Montréal, Québec, and a MiG-15, a Lim-2 actually, made in Poland by Wytwórnia Sprzętu Komunikacyjnego.

Oddly enough, the Nene did not find its way into many British aircraft. It proved far more popular in countries other than the United Kingdom, namely the USSR, the United States, France, Canada and Australia. And here lies a tale. In 1951, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) chose a two seat jet-powered trainer to train the pilots chosen to fly its Sabres, an airplane unavailable in a two seat training version. The chosen airplane, the Lockheed T-33 Silver Star, one of the most successful machines of its type in history, was made by Canadair. Interestingly, the Department of Defence Production and the RCAF chose to replace the American engine of the “T-bird,” as the Silver Star was commonly called, with, you guessed it, a Nene. American grumblings were politely ignored.

These Nenes, more powerful and yet cheaper than the original American engines, were made in Canada in a factory that Rolls-Royce Limited agreed to build. Rolls-Royce (Montreal) Limited, a subsidiary founded in 1947, thus became Rolls-Royce of Canada Limited at the end of 1952. Located near Dorval, near Montréal, the factory opened its doors in late 1952 or early 1953. The first Nene assembled in Canada was tested in September 1954.

The first Canadian-made Silver Star, on the other hand, flew in December 1952. It may, I repeat may, have been powered by a Nene produced by the Société d’exploitation des matériels Hispano-Suiza. The interesting thing about this factoid is that one of the 4 Nene engines in the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum was made by this historically significant French company. Yours truly wonders if that engine could be the one used on that December flight, but I digress. Again. Sorry. Delays in Silver Star deliveries meant that Rolls-Royce was able to deliver 850 of the 900 or so Nenes ordered by the Department of Defence Production. Rolls-Royce of Canada made only 50 engines.

Any questions, my inquisitive reading friend? Yes, this first part of the article is almost done. No, yours truly will not be pontificating about the MiG-15 or the Sabre. These stories are just too big. Next question. Was Rolls-Royce able to get some sort of compensation for the illegal production of the Nene engine in the USSR? Well, it apparently tried to claim a large sum of money. The Soviet government simply ignored the attempt. How about the air agreement, you ask? You may be pleased, or not, depending on your political inclinations, to read that the Soviet government granted permission to certain Western airlines, including British European Airways, to fly to Vnukovo via a narrow air corridor that started over the Baltic Sea, near the Swedish coast. And that’s it for now.

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Rénald Fortier