The Old-Fashioned Curves of the SBD Engine Cowling

This relatively short post contains a digression about the aircraft shape. It was sparked by a suggestion that I received. Some time ago Alan from SOARING pointed me that the SBD NACA cowling was not as smooth as in my model (thanks, Alan!). He suggested that its contour was created from a combination of two or three arcs and a straight segment (Figure 47‑1):

Figure 47-1 A different concept of the NACA cowling contour

I thought about it and decided that this is a highly probable hypothesis. For most of the 20th century aircraft engineers did not have CAD systems. During that “BC” (“Before Computers”) era the typical problem in the ship, aircraft, or car industry was: “how to precisely recreate in the workshops the shapes sketched — usually in scale — on the designers’ drawing boards”. The most important shape — the wing airfoil — was recreated using a “cloud” of data points. However, it was a time-consuming (i.e. costly) method. That’s why for the less important areas, as the fuselage, designers used simpler solutions. The most obvious method to define a specific contour was a curve composed from two or three arc segments. It is relatively easy to recreate such a contour, because you need only to know the radii and the center point coordinates of the subsequent arcs. For example, there are many cases of such curves in the P-36 and P-40. There was also another drawing method for obtaining more “fancy” shapes (like the rudder contours) which was based on a general conic curves. To overcome this problem in a more advanced way the design team of the P-51 “Mustang” described all key contours of this aircraft using polynomial (2D) functions. Still the resulting points of the “Mustang” curves had to be calculated by hand!

The modern, computer-generated curves and surfaces (Bezier, NURBS, subdivision) have continuous curvature (as in Figure 47‑1a). Thus it requires some effort to recreate in a computer model such a contour like the one sketched in Figure 47‑1b), where the curvature continuity is broken between each segment. (BTW: the air flow “likes” the shapes that have continuous curvature. That’s why designers always tried to preserve it in the airfoil contours).

All in all, I turned to the reference photos, trying to identify a kind of the contour like the one depicted in Figure 47‑1b). Ultimately I discovered a more severe break than the lack of the continuous curvature: a minor difference in the tangent directions along the panel seam (i.e. the contour of this NACA cowling does not preserve even the tangent continuity!):

Figure 47-2 Minor difference in the tangent directions along the panel seam of the SBD engine cowling

I marked the tangent directions along the panel seam in blue. This is a modern, high-resolution picture of a restored SBD-5. To exclude the possibility that this is an accidental inaccuracy made during restoration, I started to search for this break in all other photos. Surprisingly, I think that I was able to identify this “bulge” in the others SBD-5s. In the previous versions (SBD-1 to -4) it was hidden under the carburetor air scoop. But even there I think that I can trace it in the lines of the nearby panel seams (the gun troughs panels, side edges of the air scoop). Such a small deviations are usually a “side effects” of the technology applied to the particular element. Finally I used the reference photo to recreate this “bulge” in the side view (Figure 47‑3):

Figure 47-3 Recreating the “bulge” in the NACA cowling shape

What’s interesting: previously the contour of this NACA cowling had a small convex break in the top view. (When I shaped it for the first time, without the additional section, I was not able to eliminate such a break in the tangent directions. It had to occur somewhere along this panel seam. I had only the choice where to place it, and I decided to leave it on the vertical contour). Now this contour is smooth, and there is a concave break in the side view.

I suppose that initially the forward ring of this NACA cowling was formed as a perfect solid of revolution. Then it was slightly deformed while fitting to the rear, “flat” part of the cowling. The cross section along the seam between these parts is not a perfect circle: it is somewhat higher than wider. Thus the rear edge of the forward cowling sheet had to follow this shape. It altered the tangent dimensions along this panel seam. In the top view it improved the fitting between these two panels of the NACA cowling. In the side view it only decreased the initial difference in the tangent directions.

Well, I hope that this post gives you a better insight, how we can deliberate on each small detail of the recreated airplane. In the overall picture of this aircraft the differences between the shapes before and after modification described above are hardly noticeable. However, I am a hobbyist, and sometimes we are the only ones who have the time to care about such minor things.

In this source *.blend file you can find this modified NACA cowling. (The change in its shape required some adjustments in the other panels).

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