By William Pearce
John Nelson Dundas Heenan was born on 4 October 1892 in Altrincham, England. He became an engineer and worked for the family engineering firm Heenan & Froude in Manchester. Heenan left the family firm in 1935 when its parent company went bankrupt, and it was acquired by outside investors. Heenan worked for the British Air Ministry During World War II and cofounded the engineering consulting firm Heenan, Winn, and Steel (HW&S) in early 1946.
Like many others, Heenan believed that there would be a post-war boom in civil aviation with a huge need for light aircraft for private pilots. Working with others at HW&S, he designed an aircraft capable of carrying four to five passengers. Heenan decided that the aircraft should be built using a magnesium alloy with zirconium. However, due to a lack of experience with the metal, HW&S approached Magnesium Elektron Ltd to build the aircraft. Magnesium Elektron was owned by the Distillers Company Ltd, and its business had experienced a drastic contraction after the war. The Distillers Company was willing to consider options to expand Magnesium Elektron’s business and formed a partnership with HW&S to create Planet Aircraft Ltd. Planet Aircraft operated as a subsidiary of the Distillers Company to construct and produce the new aircraft, which was named Satellite. The aircraft was commonly referred to as the Planet Satellite.
The Satellite was a streamlined, low-wing, pusher monoplane with tricycle landing gear. The pusher configuration was chosen to reduce passenger cabin noise by isolating it from the engine and propeller. The two-piece fuselage was of monocoque construction and consisted of forward and rear sections. The magnesium fuselage was riveted together for the prototype aircraft, but production aircraft were to be welded. The fuselage was split just behind the wings for access to the engine, which was located aft of the passenger cabin and above the center wing section. A firewall separated the passenger cabin from the engine compartment.
The forward fuselage section incorporated the passenger cabin and was 4 ft 8 in (1.42 m) in diameter at its widest point. The pilot and copilot/front passenger sat behind an expansive windscreen that extended to the nose of the aircraft. A bench that could accommodate up to three passengers was behind the pilot’s seat. Cabin access was via two doors that folded down, one by the pilot’s seat and one by the copilot’s seat. As the door was opened downward, the armrest folded down to act as a step. The window above each door slid up toward the center of the fuselage.
An inverted, U-shaped magnesium keel reinforcement ran internally along the bottom of the forward fuselage section from the nose of the aircraft to the wing’s leading edge. At the leading edge, the keel became a single plate that extended to the wing’s trailing edge. The wings and main landing gear were attached to the plate. The pneumatically-operated landing gear was fully enclosed, with the nosewheel retracting to the rear into the keel and the main gear legs retracting forward and into the fuselage. A landing light was incorporated into the front of the aircraft, just above the nosewheel.
To power the Satellite, buyers could choose between the 250 hp (186 kW) de Havilland Gipsy Queen 31 or the 145 hp (108 kW) de Havilland Gipsy Major 10. While both engines were inverted, inline, air-cooled designs, the six-cylinder Gipsy Queen had a 4.65 in (120 mm) bore, a 5.51 in (150 mm) stroke, a displacement of 621 cu in (10.18 L), and a weight of 510 lb (231 kg). The four-cylinder Gipsy Major had a 4.65 in (118 mm) bore, a 5.51 in (140 mm) stroke, a displacement of 374 cu in (6.12 L), and a weight of 312 lb (142 kg). The selected engine was affixed to a rail mount and could be slid out 18 in (.46 m) from the forward fuselage for maintenance once the rear fuselage was disconnected. A fan driven from the rear of the engine brought in cooling air via a duct atop the fuselage and expelled the heated air out the lower fuselage. Engine exhaust was also expelled in the same manner.
The wing had one main spar at its center and a false spar that supported the flaps and ailerons. The flaps ran along half of the wing’s trailing edge, with ailerons extending to the wingtips. Magnesium sheets 28 in (.71 m) wide were wrapped around the wing’s leading edge and extended to both the upper and lower trailing edges to form the wing skin. The wing had two degrees of dihedral, and each wing accommodated a 34 US gal (28 Imp gal / 127 L) fuel tank, for a total of 67 US gal (56 Imp gal / 255 L). With two additional wing tanks, the fuel capacity could be increased to 109 US gal (91 Imp gal / 414 L) for a long-range flight with a single pilot.
The forward and rear fuselage sections were joined via a quick-release locking “ring,” which Heenan had patented (GB 620,462: applied on 20 January 1947 and accepted on 24 March 1949). Control cables were automatically connected or disconnected in conjunction with the locking ring. The rear fuselage section incorporated the extension shaft, propeller, and Y tail.
The hollow extension shaft extended approximately 10 ft (3 m) from the engine to drive a two-blade, adjustable-pitch Aeromatic propeller at the extreme rear of the fuselage. The hollow steel shaft acted as an oil reservoir for the bearings that supported it. The propeller was 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m) in diameter. The ventral fin of the Y tail incorporated a rudder and a spring-loaded bumper to protect the propeller from ground impacts. The two “butterfly” horizontal stabilizers had 30 degrees of dihedral, which increased the aircraft’s directional stability. The Satellite’s control surfaces were of all-metal construction. The Planet Satellite had a wingspan of 33 ft 6 in (10.21 m), a length of 26 ft 3 in (8.00 m), and a height of 9 ft 3 in (2.82 m).
With a Gipsy Queen 31 engine, the aircraft had a top speed of 208 mph (335 km/h) at sea level and a stalling speed of 62 mph (100 km/h) at its maximum load. An economical cruise speed of 191 mph (307 km/h) was achieved at 3,500 ft (1,067 m), which resulted in a range of 1,000 miles (1,609 km) with a normal fuel load at maximum weight and 2,450 miles (3,943 km) with the extra fuel tanks and a single pilot. The Satellite had a 1,450 fpm (7.4 m/s) initial rate of climb and a ceiling of 22,000 ft (6,706 m). The aircraft had an empty weight of 1,600 lb (726 kg) and a maximum gross weight of 2,905 lb (1,318 kg). Fully loaded, the Satellite could take off in 570 ft (174 m). The Gipsy Queen-powered Satellite was offered for £3,500.
With the significantly less powerful Gipsy Major 10 engine, the Satellite’s performance was reduced. The aircraft had a top speed of 173 mph (278 km/h) at sea level and a stalling speed of 54 mph (87 km/h) at its maximum load. An economical cruise speed of 161 mph (259 km/h) was achieved at 5,000 ft (1,524 m), which resulted in a range of 500 miles (805 km) with a normal fuel load at maximum weight and 2,150 miles (3,460 km) with the extra fuel tanks and a single pilot. The Satellite had a 950 fpm (4.8 m/s) initial rate of climb and a ceiling of 18,000 ft (5,486 m). The aircraft had an empty weight of 1,408 lb (639 kg) and a maximum gross weight of 2,280 lb (1,034 kg). Fully loaded, the Satellite could take off in 840 ft (256 m). The Gipsy Major-powered Satellite was offered for £2,500.
Detail design work on the Satellite started in April 1946. For Satellite construction, neither Planet Aircraft, Magnesium Elektron, or the Distillers Company had facilities to build the prototype aircraft. Magnesium Elektron contracted Redwing Aircraft Ltd to build two Satellite prototypes at their facility in Thornton Heath, near London. A mockup of the cockpit and forward fuselage section was completed in 1947, and the construction of two prototypes soon followed.
The first, nearly-complete Satellite made its public debut at the SBAC (Society of British Aircraft Constructors) Farnborough Show in September 1948. The aircraft was registered as G-ALOI on 26 April 1949. The Satellite was moved to Blackbushe Aerodrome, near Farnborough, for flight trials. Flight testing was to be conducted by Hugh Joseph “Willie” Wilson, who had resigned from the Royal Air Force as a Group Captain to serve as a director with Planet Aircraft. On 7 November 1945, Wilson had established a new World Air Speed Record at 606.262 mph (975.675 km/h) in a Gloster Meteor.
Wilson took the Satellite for high-speed taxi tests and did a tentative hop in the aircraft. Upon settling back on the ground, the landing gear promptly collapsed. The Satellite was repaired, and Wilson restarted the test program. Again at Blackbushe Aerodrome, Wilson took the aircraft to about 20 ft (6 m) above the runway. This time the landing was uneventful. However, a crack in the magnesium keel was discovered when the aircraft was inspected after the flight. Analysis of the crack indicated that the Satellite’s magnesium structure was severely understressed and would need an extensive rebuild to bring it into tolerance of its expected flight regime. The British Air Registration Board required that the aircraft be restressed before any further flights were made.
Although Heenan was an engineer, he was not an aeronautical engineer, and the Satellite was his first aircraft design. He once said that only 400 drawings were made during the Satellite’s design phase, compared to the roughly 3,000 drawings that would be expected for a comparable aircraft. With the design now coming up short, another £40,000 would be needed to resolve the Satellite’s deficiencies. The Distillers Company had already invested over £100,000 and withdrew further funding. The Satellite was moved to Redhill Aerodrome south of London, where it sat and slowly deteriorated until 1958, when it was finally scrapped.
The second Satellite prototype was registered as G-ALXP in 1950, but it was never completed. G-ALXP’s mostly-finished fuselage was later used by Firth Helicopters as the basis for the FH.01/4 Atlantic helicopter, a twin-rotor design which was built in 1952. The FH.01/4 Atlantic was also designed by HW&S, but it never flew and was eventually scrapped in the 1960s. Most likely by coincidence, the basic layout of the Planet Satellite would be resurrected in the late 1970s as the Lear Fan 2100, another unconventional aircraft constructed of unconventional materials in hopes of revolutionizing private air travel.
– The Planet Satellite by Planet Aircraft Ltd (cira 1948)
– Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1949–50 by Leonard Bridgman (1949)
– “Heavenly Body” by Don Middleton, Aeroplane Monthly (October 1983)
– “Ones That Got Away: Planet Satellite” by Mike Jerram, Wingspan International (March/April 2001)
– Aircraft Engines of the World 1948 by Paul H. Wilkinson (1948)
– “Improvements in and relating to Aeroplanes” by John Nelson Dundas Heenan, GB patent 620,462 (applied 20 January 1947)
Thanks for this article and what a gorgeous aircraft! Although flight testing was short lived, I wonder if the design incorporated a vibration dampener for the long propeller shaft? The Taylor Aerocar had a similarly long propeller shaft that tended to “wind-up” with out a dampener to cushion the power pulses from the engine.
Hello Tom! – I don’t know if it had a dampener. It may have never run long enough to realize that it needed one (if it did not already have it). There are not too many details on this aircraft, but it was always neat to me.
Great write up! Thank you. What an interesting aircraft. I assume all the performance information is calculated and not actual. Is this a typo or am I misunderstanding understressed? …”the Satellite’s magnesium structure was severely understressed and would need an extensive rebuild”. I wonder about the center of gravity range of the aircraft. It is difficult to see exactly where the rear passenger set lies vis a vis the wing, but it seems to be in front of the wing. Mostly, the hubris of designing an aircraft for the first time in an unusual metal and not hiring an engineer to check the designs before building! Looks great though!
Hello Jiro – Yes, performance info was estimated. Regarding “understressed,” I am saying that the aircraft was not engineered to take the loads (stresses) it would encounter during normal flight. So, it seems that the anticipated load ranges during flight would have “overstressed” the aircraft because of its inadequate design and a structural failure could result. Perhaps I should have used a better work. Yes, the rear seats are just in front of the wing. The rear of the passenger compartment is at the wing’s leading edge.
When I close my eyes and picture my dream plane, it looks like this. A magnesium arrow with a push-button and piston engine. However, it differs in its vision with a turbo boxer engine and a pressurized cabin. And of course the use of laminates and carbon fiber. Other materials, but the concept is the same as decades ago in another mind. Beautiful machine.