Early Flying Machines Were Just Weird

There’s a reason most designs didn’t stick around

Army Avrocars
Army Avrocars depicted as "flying jeeps" in company literature Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The routine of commercial flight almost makes you forget how incredible it is and how hard humans worked to get into the sky in the first place. To remember, just take a look at some of the odd, early flying machines.

Vincze Miklós collected videos of a handful of these airplanes, hovercrafts and other contraptions for io9. They are endearingly (or frighteningly) clumsy. The Pterodactyl MKI seems to lumber before it takes off—even though it looks light and fragile. A combo automobile and airplane called the Waterman Arrowbile was perhaps anticipating that commuters would wake up, drive a bit and then fly to work. The first flew in 1935, and only five were ever built, Miklós writes.

Still, many of these flying machines look vaguely like the planes we know—even the Horton Wingless V-16, which has tiny stubs only used for takeoff and landing. But the Avrocar VZ-9 looks like a flying saucer. (Also, in some of the clips in this video, from the U.S. National Archives, the pilot looks a lot like he’s dressed as a rebel fighter from Star Wars.)

Avrocar Continuation Test Program and Terrain Test Program, 06/01/1960 - 06/14/1961

The Avrocar "was touted as capable of watching the enemy or darting off to intercept his aircraft and shoot it down," writes Graham Chandler for Air & Space Magazine. But it never got very high off the ground. Chandler writes:

But what the vehicle actually did could in no way be called “flying,” says Fred Drinkwater. He should know; he tried to fly it. “This one violated every aerodynamic stability and control concept imaginable,” the retired test pilot recalls.

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force writes that the saucer was an effort to develop supersonic vertical takeoff and landing. 

A.V. Roe (Avro) Aircraft Limited (later Avro Canada) based its design concept for the Avrocar on using the exhaust from turbojet engines to drive a circular "turborotor" which produced thrust. By directing this thrust downward, the turborotor would create a cushion of air (also known as "ground effect") upon which the aircraft would float at low altitude. When the thrust was directed toward the rear, the aircraft would accelerate and gain altitude. 

The Canadian government funded the project in 1952, but dropped it when it became too expensive. Then the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force picked it up in 1958, but apparently had different goals for the flying vehicle. "The Army wanted to use it as a subsonic, all-terrain troop transport and reconnaissance craft, but the USAF wanted a VTOL aircraft that could hover below enemy radar then zoom up to supersonic speed," the museum writes. By trying to satisfy both sets of requirements, the Avrocar was doomed. It only ever reached a maximum speed of 35 mph and was canceled in 1961.

Too bad, it was a pretty funky looking vehicle. Of course, the military has a long and storied history of weird science and extreme aircraft. Even the more successful models are just bizarre looking.

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