Geodetic airframe

A geodetic airframe is a type of construction for the airframes of aircraft developed by British aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis in the 1930s (who sometimes spelled it "geodesic"). Earlier, it was used by Prof. Schütte for the Schütte Lanz Airship LS 1 in 1909.[1] It makes use of a space frame formed from a spirally crossing basket-weave of load-bearing members.[2] The principle is that two geodesic arcs can be drawn to intersect on a curving surface (the fuselage) in a manner that the torsional load on each cancels out that on the other.[3]

Early examplesEdit

18th-century American warships "Diagonal rider" in their construction.

The "diagonal rider" structural element was used by Joshua Humphreys in the first US Navy sail frigates in 1794.[4] Diagonal riders are viewable in the interior hull structure of the preserved USS Constitution on display in Boston Harbor.[5][6][4] The structure was a pioneering example of placing "non-orthogonal" structural components within an otherwise conventional structure for its time.[6] The "diagonal riders" were included in these American naval vessels' construction as one of five elements to reduce the problem of hogging in the ship's hull, and did not make up the bulk of the vessel's structure, they do not constitute a completely "geodetic" space frame.[citation needed]

Calling any diagonal wood brace (as used on gates, buildings, ships or other structures with cantilevered or diagonal loads) an example of geodesic design is a misnomer. In a geodetic structure, the strength and structural integrity, and indeed the shape, come from the diagonal "braces" - the structure does not need the "bits in between" for part of its strength (implicit in the name space frame) as does a more conventional wooden structure.


Wellington Mk.X HE239 of No.428 Sqn. RCAF, illustrating the geodesic construction and the level of punishment it could absorb while maintaining integrity and airworthiness.
A section of the rear fuselage from a Warwick showing the geodesic construction in duralumin. On exhibit at the Armstrong & Aviation Museum at Bamburgh Castle.

The earliest-known use of a geodesic airframe design for any aircraft was for the pre-World War I Schütte-Lanz SL1 rigid airship's envelope structure of 1911, with the airship capable of up to a 38.3 km/h (23.8 mph) top airspeed.

The Latécoère 6 was a French four-engined biplane bomber of the early 1920s. It was of advanced all-metal construction and probably the first aircraft to use geodetic construction. Only one was built.

Barnes Wallis, inspired by his earlier experience with light alloy structures and the use of geodesically-arranged wiring to distribute the lifting loads of the gasbags in the design of the R100 airship, evolved the geodetic construction method (although it is commonly stated, there was no geodetic structure in R100).[7] Wallis used the term "geodetic" to apply to the airframe and distinguish it from "geodesic" which is the proper term for a line on a curved surface, arising from geodesy.[disputed ]

The system was later used by Wallis's employer, Vickers-Armstrongs in a series of bomber aircraft, the Wellesley, Wellington, Warwick and Windsor. In these aircraft, the fuselage was built up from a number of duralumin alloy channel-beams that were formed into a large framework. Wooden battens were screwed onto the metal, to which the doped linen skin of the aircraft was fixed.

The metal lattice-work gave a light structure with tremendous strength;[2] any one of the stringers could support some of the load from the opposite side of the aircraft. Blowing out the structure from one side would still leave the load-bearing structure as a whole intact. As a result, Wellingtons with huge areas of framework missing continued to return home when other types would not have survived; the dramatic effect enhanced by the doped fabric skin burning off, leaving the naked frames exposed (see photo). The benefits of the geodesic construction were partly offset by the difficulty of modifying the physical structure of the aircraft to allow for a change in length, profile, wingspan etc.

Geodetic wing and fin structures—taken from the Wellington—were used on the post-war Vickers VC.1 Viking, though with a new fuselage and metal-skinned.[8]

See alsoEdit


Inline citationsEdit

  1. ^ Nowarra, Heinz J. (1988). Deutsche Luftschiffe: Parseval - Schütte - Lanz - Zeppelin (in German). Friedberg: Ponzun-Pallas-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7909-0332-4. Retrieved 2 December 2018. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ a b Buttler, p.93
  3. ^ Buttler, p.94
  4. ^ a b "Keel Hauled". USS CONSTITUTION MUSEUM. September 2016.
  5. ^ Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice (27 June 2017). "Construction of the USS Constitution". History of Massachusetts Blog.
  6. ^ a b Otton, Patrick (1997). USS Constitution Rehabilitation And Restoration. Third International Conference on the Technical Aspects of the Preservation of Historic Vessels Conference Proceedings. San Francisco Maritime Park Association.
  7. ^ Murray, p.34 and p.44
  8. ^ Bailey-Watson, C. B. (24 May 1945), "Vickers Viking", Flight


  • Buttler, Tony (2004). British Secret Projects: Fighters & Bombers 1935-1950. Hinckley: Midland Publishing. p. 240 pages. ISBN 978-1-85780-179-8.
  • Murray, Iain (2009). Bouncing-Bomb Man: the Science of Sir Barnes Wallis. Haynes. ISBN 978-1-84425-588-7.