For the Summer Edition series of Blog Posts, I had planned to post a tribute for Thunderbird 2, the airlift workhorse of Thunderbirds fame. On Boxing Day, programme creator Gerry Anderson passed away at 83 after battling dementia. To Gerry and all those involved with this series, from generations of kids (both past, current, and those to come), thank you.
In the late 80s/early 90s, Thunderbirds came on at 6am on Saturdays. Without question, Saturday morning’s cartoons were the strongest of the week, but Thunderbird’s o’dark early airtime necessitated an earlier-than-usual rise from bed to catch it. For an eight-year-old, there was a lot to love about Gerry Anderson’s marionette puppet series. I was too young to appreciate the retro-kitch of a 1960s-inspired future, instead paying lavish attention to the ‘futuristic’ aerospace technology being put to use by International Rescue each week.
Thunderbird 1 was a swing-wing rocket that provided essential short-notice response and command-and-control functions for any disaster area. Thunderbird 3, a nuclear-powered rocket (begging questions of how a private industrialist/ex-astronaut like Jeff Tracey came in to possession of his own private reactor, much less equipped in on a aerospace vehicle – all Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties must be extinct in this future). By far my favourite of the Thunderbird fleet was the bottle-green Thunderbird 2, an airlift workhorse that could be reconfigured for any number of roles – submersible rescue vehicle delivery, airborne crane, subterranean drill transport….
Thunderbird 2 could lay its heritage at the foot of British aircraft manufacturers, who spawned a number of imaginative transport aircraft – Argosy, Beverley, please step forward). Special Effects guru Derek Meddings (of James Bond special effects fame) designed the Thunderbird fleet, and to his credit he got some elements right about Thunderbird 2.
The nose profile is broadly reminiscent of today’s modern airlifters, and it utilises a ‘lifting body’ to achieve most of its lift. Its operation by International Rescue emphasises a minimum crew philosophy – single pilot IFR capable, with autonomous loading/unloading of all loads.
There’s still a lot left to be desired about Thunderbird 2 however. Its ‘lifting body’ fuselage relied on a fuselage which also served as a removable cargo pod (built, trialed, and thankfully abandoned by the Fairchild C-120 Packplane in the late 1940s). I swear that on some occasions Thunderbird 2 flew sans cargo pod. It also possesses a VTOL capability with cruise propulsion that takes it to a top speed of over mach seven – handy traits when responding to disasters, but there’s no telling how this amount of thrust from an engine would comply with airport noise abatements of today, let along the 2060s.
Faults aside, Jeff Tracey could have managed a nice export program for Thunderbird 2 should he have to take it in to production. Most Air Forces would likely opt out of using the expensive and complicated Tropical Island launch pad system – see the video of the launch sequence – in favour of their existing runways. No doubt found the spacious cargo bay would be extremely useful for transporting large numbers of troops and cargo where required. While its VTOL capability is attractive for accessing small, remote airstrips, the heat produced by this system would restrict it to the sturdiest of concrete aprons and runways only. The Pavement Concession Strength required for a Thunderbird 2 resting on its four stilts during loading/unloading of cargo would be an airfield engineer’s nightmare come to life. Downloading a maintenance/performance report from Thunderbird 2’s flight computer would either require interpretation of its blinking red lights, or a system of punch cards guaranteed to cause an avionics technician no shortage of tedium. Today’s manufacturers therefore retain a niche for a transport aircraft which could continue operating from semi-prepared runways at far lighter airfield surface strengths.
Then again, there’s another 47 years to go yet…