Roy Exum: The Chicken Gun

Friday, November 24, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

On the very day when more poultry is consumed in the United States than at any other time in the year, fun-loving Wendell Burns shared a wonderful story about “The Chicken Gun.” What makes the tale even better is that it was designed and built to perfection by the folks at the Arnold Air Force Base that you know is near Tullahoma, Tn.

Wendell’s mistake in sending the story is that he swears it is true and the more I studied on a quiet Thanksgiving afternoon, the more fun the Chicken Gun got. The Arnold Air Force base was decommissioned in 2009 but the Arnold Engineering Development Complex remains as the most advanced, sophisticated and largest flight-simulation facility in the world.

Every modern-day airplane in the world has been greatly influenced by the genius at Arnold and it is fitting the place was named for the Father of the Air Force, General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, because he took his early flying lessons from the Wright Brothers.

Jet engines were developed in World War II but the bigger phenomena was that airplane travel became popular. Right under anti-aircraft fire the biggest danger to flight emerged when hapless birds would get sucked through the jet turbines. Air Force estimates are there are roughly 3,000 birds hit by airplanes every year at a cost of about $50 million.

You say that’s impossible but if you were awake in physics class you learned energy equals half the mass multiplied by the velocity squared (E = ½ MV2). Most birds weigh less than eight pounds but, brother, you hit one at 600 miles an hour and you’ve had a bad day. In Boston a commercial plane got into a flock of starlings and dozens died. An Air Force plane ran into geese in Alaska and 24 (not including the geese) were killed.

The scientists tried everything at Arnold trying to simulate a bird hitting a plane in the dozens of wind tunnels. Modeling clay, ground beef … nothing worked. So they built this gun – it’s got a 40-foot barrel --- and used heavily-compressed air to shoot a dead chicken at speeds of up to 400 miles an hour into the windows of a plane.

The loader grabs a dead chicken, puts it into the 10-inch wide barrel and – BA-loom – they test different areas on airplanes to do great work in bird-proofing military and public aircraft alike.

Most people passing the Tullahoma exit on I-24 think Arnold is an old, abandoned Air Force base but every engine in every aircraft in Desert Storm was developed at Arnold. There are 80 wind tunnels and word is they have a jet engine that will go Mach 8. Mach 1 is the speed of sound and equals 717 MPH. I’m told no one would believe the secret stuff.

What you have read up to this point can be proven without a pale of doubt but now the story gets a little tricky for lack of eye witness.

The delightful story Wendell shared wants us to believe our British allies called on the overseas line to borrow the chicken gun. They were keen on testing the cockpit design of a new high-speed train that would speed from London to Paris.

So the British engineers crank up the gun and throw a 4-pound chicken in the breech. They rev up the air compression to where it is screaming and – BA-loom –the chicken hardly slowed as it penetrated the shatter-proof nose, crystalized the windshield, went completely through the console, ripped the back of the driver’s seat and planted itself in the back of the cabin.

The dead chicken decimated the train cockpit and – oh my – there was pandemonium! The train company immediately wired the Arnold Air Force Base an urgent plea, explaining what had happened. Lord have mercy, did they use the wrong kind of chicken? Within three hours a short, three-word answer arrived from Tullahoma: “Defrost the chicken.”

It is said that Army General Wes Clark loves the story and tells it often on the speaker’s circuit but make no mistake, the Chicken Gun and simple physics have in fact saved a lot of lives.

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