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A wise-ish man sporting harem pants once said, “I always believe that the sky is the beginning of the limit.” Sure, the prancing philosopher in question is MC Hammer, but his observation might be shared by some of the individuals who are currently trying or have already attempted to get humankind safely airborne in a vehicle that can also deliver us to the grocery store via the traditional method-driving the family car.
In 1485, Leonardo DaVinci had his weird bicycle-with-wheels flying contraption that never quite took off. It would take more than 400 additional years until the Wright brothers were successfully, briefly, able to put air between themselves and the ground with a flying machine, the precursor to today’s jets and tomorrow’s jetpacks and interplanetary exploring vehicles.
In those intervening years, there were scores of ideas and dreams and sketches of concepts that would make gravity-trapped people soar.
Here’s a look at 20 machines that are the aeronautic equivalent of bumblebees: They don’t look like they should be able to fly, but they do:
The Aerodyne looks kind of like a jet’s propeller intake on one side and its tail on the other. Developed by Alexander Lippisch, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who fled to the United States, the vehicle relied on two coaxial propellers for lift.
Source: Rex Research
The HZ-1 Aerocycle , designed during the 1950s by de Lackner Helicopters to fly recon missions for the U.S. Army during the Cold War. It’s like a podium with four individual helicopters keeping it afloat or an aerial scooter. But it worked. (Sources: Wikipedia , Aviastar )
During the same era, pilots got an eye-full of the Kaman K-16 , tested by NASA’s Ames Wind Tunnel. The Navy wanted a plane with a tilt-wing design, so it looked like flying boat more than a plane despite its wings and propellers. This was designed to be a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle, which is why the tilting wings were important. The wings rotated up to 50 degrees and the plane could travel at 80 kilometers per hour before things got dicey. (Source: Aviastar )
Check out the VZ9 Avrocar , created by the U.S. Air Force and similar in appearance to a flying saucer or donut. This particular vehicle is credited for being among the first hovercraft prototypes but technical issues and challenges prevented its widespread adoption by the military. During its short lifespan, the project was scaled back several times, losing its ability to be the fighter craft capable of high speeds and altitudes. This is not to be confused with… (Source: Extreme Tech )
The Vought V-173, lovingly called the “Flying Pancake” by those who worked on the experimental vehicle in the late 1940s. Charles Zimmerman, the project’s mastermind, reasoned that a circular aircraft would fight with less drag than one with a more conventional look. A uniform windflow would allow the craft to take off and land at slower speeds, making it a great fit for the U.S. Navy. The vehicle had a circular wing measuring 23.3 feet in diameter and, after a 139-hour testing program, it was determined it flew in a weird way, but those bugs could be ironed out. More tests were ordered before eventually the Navy and NASA’s precursor ruled it practical but not as enticing as high-speed jets. (Source: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum )
The Rotary Rocket is a more recent entry into this world. Built in the 1990s, the vehicle kind of looks like a badminton shuttlecock. It was designed to be a single-stage-to-orbit manned spacecraft that would reduce the cost of ferrying supplies to space. It was a short-lived dream, however, with just three hover flights in California’s Mojave Desert in 1999 before the company declared bankruptcy in 2001.
The Caproni-Stipa takes the joke about going over Niagara Falls in a barrel and spins it on its head until it gains enough momentum to take off. Designed in the 1930s, some see the barrel-shaped plane as more like a cask, with a cylindrical body that covered the engine and propeller so the thrust would be more dynamic. The big round plane lasted only a few years before the concept crashed and was abandoned in 1933, until a smaller replica was built and tried again, this time in Australia in 2001. Source: Italian Ways
The Spruce Goose, or Hughes H-4, might be one of the better-known entries in the world of weird aviation. Designed, built and dreamed up by mad rich genius Howard Hughes, the plane was designed to be a heavy transport flying boat made not of spruce but birch, due to wartime rations on aluminum and concerns about how much the floating flying fortress would weigh. The plane had the largest wingspan of any aircraft that ever took off and remains one of the largest flying crafts ever built. By the way, the Spruce Goose flew just once – for one minute at 70 feet above the ground – but is still considered one of the great symbols of American innovation and spirit during a time of war and suffering. Those curious about the mammoth machine can still take a look today; it’s on display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in Oregon.
Source: Evergreen Museum
The Blohm and Voss BV 141 is the German entry to the world of weird aircraft. Another WWII creation, this plane is notable for its lack of symmetry. Conventional though be damned! The crew sat on the starboard side while the plane’s power and tail wing were on the port; oddly enough, it reportedly had excellent handling. Still the weirdness of the design and the scarcities of war meant the prototype was never approved for mass production. Putting the crew in a location other than dead center was supposed to give them an advantage in their aim, both in photography and artillery. In 1941, the German Air Ministry had stopped its quest for a revolutionary design change for aircraft and the project ended.
Source: Military Factory
The Kettering Bug is the granddaddy of all drones. Developed in 1918 as a secret project for the U.S. military by Orville Wright – he of the famous flying brothers – and Charles Kettering of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, the government was intrigued by this concept of a “self-flying aerial torpedo.” A simple 12-foot-long biplane with a 15-foot wingspan, the bug weighted about 530 pounds, a total the included a 180 pound bomb. It was launched not from a runway but a dolly on a track. It was designed so that after the propellers made a certain number of spins, the bomb would just fall off on or near its target and the bug would carry on. Fewer than 50 were built during WWI and it was never used in battle, with research continuing into the 1920s before the project was discontinued.
Source: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
The Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster probably has the best name on this list. Probably. Instead of putting engines on the wings of the plane, this was designed to keep them safely enclosed within the fuselage. From there, the engines could better power the propellers, affixed, one in front of the other, to the tail. The XB-42 paved the way for the first jet bomber commissioned by the United States, the XB-43, but the XB-42 was equally impressive. It started as a corporate project flesh out the possibilities for fast, high-altitude attack craft but, after the Air Force saw a demonstration, it wanted something a little less pricey. The Mixmaster had a cylindrical fuselage and cross-shaped tail and used a tricycle gear. The pilot and copilot sat side-by-side under bubble canopies with a bombardier in the nose. In all, the jet had two .50 caliber machine guns and four rear-firing machine guns, all controlled by the copilot via an elaborate mechanical system, but with a limited firing range. For what it’s worth, it was fast, reaching speeds of about 300 miles per hour for cruising or up to 410 mpg during a sprint, even when loaded down with 8,000 pounds of weaponry.
The Bartini Berieve VVA-14 looks like something out of the original Star Wars run, but it was designed to be a kind of seaplane for the Russians. Inspired in part by the Spruce Goose and, well, vengeance, this hulking mass of metal was an attempt at an amphibious craft that would fight missile submarines. It would’ve need an astonishing 12 engines to fly, given its shape and size, but would have been capable of flight from land or sea and have an extraordinary flight range. None of that happened, unfortunately, leaving us all to wonder whether the plane with pontoons could have been successful. The plane’s fate closely followed that of its creator, Croatian-born Robert Bartini, who died in 1974 as the vehicle’s design was under another round of modifications. (Source: Vintage News )
The M 39 Libellula was a British design from the WWII era. Like others, its creators wanted to make it easier to land on aircraft carriers on planes where vision was obscured by artillery. The craft’s name comes from a class of dragonflies, in no small part due to the shared presence of two parallel sets of wings. Sure, the plane had an improved center of gravity than traditional military planes and featured a shorter fuselage and tighter wingspan, not to mention overall lower weight than others in its class, but it was plagued by other problems in performance. Only three aircraft were built, tested by the American program, before the Brits eventually tinkered with the design further, expanding the wings to 37.5 feet at the front and 55.8 feet at the back. Now the plane weighed nearly 26,800 pounds and, just as the team was preparing for yet another run of tests, the Royal Air Force scrapped the whole thing in 1948.
Source: Military Factory
The North American XF-82 had pilots seeing double. The last American piston-engine fighter ordered by the U.S. Air Force, and based on the P-51 Mustang, this plane was supposed to be a long-range escort fighter during WWII. It was equipped with radar and used to replace the Black Widow as an interceptor, flying out of Japan and over Korea. The design was simple: simply combine two of the P-51 Mustangs into a single flying vehicle. Done. This meant two pilots and twice as much fuel capacity. Pilots could take turns controlling the plane, making longer flights (and bombing missions) possible. Eventually this was modified, with one pilot controlling the plane and the other cockpit used for a person dedicated to operating radar. Sources: Military History Now , Wikipedia
The X-3 Stiletto was a dagger on purpose. The sleek aircraft was one of the first in the experimental wing (ha) of NASA’s design, a single-piece jet-powered research plane designed and built by the Douglas Aircraft Company in the late 1940s. The first test flight was in 1952 by pilot Bill Bridgeman, taking off from Edwards Air Force Base in California and flying about a mile. Initially, the flights were underpowered and difficult to fly, requiring 260 knots to take off, to say nothing of how poorly it performed. At its fastest, after many design changes, the X-3 reached just over Mach 1.2 in a 30-degree dive. It was a disappointment, sure, and two notable pilots, Frank Everest and Chuck Yeager only made three flights each. But it was perfectly suited for lateral and directional flights, rolling at transonic and supersonic speeds, thanks to its long, narrow shape.
The HL-10 , another NASA creation, came from Northrop Corporation and was intended to be a horizontal landing aircraft (that’s what the HL stands for). Commissioned by NASA’s Langley Research Center, the design had some control problems from the beginning that were addressed by moving the fins a bit. The plane was repeatedly tested for its gliding abilities and was flown some 37 times for research purposes. It reached Mach 1.86, or 1,228 miles per hour, during a test flight in early 1970 and, a few days later, topped 90,000 feet in altitude. The shape is almost comical, flat on top with rounded sides that made it looks kind of like a flying bathtub. Most notable about this design, through all its iterations, is the lack of wings. This is another flying craft that can be visited and marveled at today; it’s on display at the Armstrong Flight Research Center. (Source: NASA )
The Model 281 Proteus was a tandem wing, high-altitude endurance aircraft that could carry up to 2,000 at 50,000 feet while flying for 14 hours. Impressive! It was created with communication and recon missions in mind, but could also be used for atmospheric study, imaging and some space missions. Only one prototype was ever built, in 1998, with a wingspan of just over 77 and a half feet, but the wings can be expanded to 92 feet with the addition of removable wingtips. It can fit two pilot in the cockpit but can also be flown remotely or autonomously. NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center worked with Scaled Composites to develop an autopilot system and satellite communications-based uplink-downlink data system. Time magazine dubbed it the one of the best designs of the year in 1998. (Source: UAS , Wikipedia )
B377PG is a terrible name. It’s boring. It’s especially bland for a plane also known as the Pregnant Guppy or Super Guppy , one of the weirdest and coolest looking flying machines. Look at this thing—the front is bloated and bumpy like a fish or whale of some kind! It’s HUGE! Originally dreamed up in the 1960s, the Guppy was intended to move big chunks of rockets from one point to another for testing and assembly before flight. The designer, John Conroy of Aero Spacelines, nearly went bankrupt of cash and credit as he worked to reconfigure a Boeing Stratocruiser, but he ultimately succeeded. This really odd looking plane helped bring Apollo rockets from California to Florida, saving huge amounts of time and stress. With a few alterations and some high-tech redesigns, the ancestor of this plane, the Super Guppy, is still used by NASA, and for the same purposes: in early 2018, it was used to transport the new Space Launch System from Alabama to Florida for testing with NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The future of spaceflight rides in a really shiny plane that opens its face to load cargo.
The German Dornier Do 31 kind of looks like a hornet or bee or mosquito, but much, much bigger. Another vertical take-off and landing plane at the start, the plane was 68 feet long and required a two-person crew. Its takeoff and landing from a single spot was due to a lift engine whose exhaust could be directed backward or forward just 15 degrees, while the Bristol Pegasus engines, with 15,500 pounds of thrust, could move 30 degrees forward or 80 degrees backward. The plane was designed to meet NATO specifications but the project only lived for three years and only three planes were built before the costs became prohibitive. Two of the prototypes are on display in museums: the Dornier Do 31 E1 is at the Dornier Museum Friedrichshafen; the Dornier Do 31 E3 is at the Deutsches Museum Flugwerft Schleissheim near Munich.
The Hyper III could easily be a precursor for the Stealth bomber, but it predates it by a few decades. Designed by Dale Reed, the Hyper III was part of the M2 lifting body program, featuring a flat bottom and sides with a straight, flapless wing. Unlike the Stealth, the Hyper III was unpowered, launched from helicopters. It also flew just three times, the last time for just three minutes, but that had more to do with NASA cancelling the program than any problems with the design.
Source: Living War Birds
Did You Know?
- In 1917 the Curtiss Autoplane was unveiled at the Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition. It never flew, but it had a heater to keep passengers warm.
- In a classic case of putting the apple before the cart in 1932 both the US and USSR were dumping money into trying to perfect flying tanks.
- The Waterman Aeromobile was made from Studebaker and Ford parts when it debuted in 1934 in an effort to keep its price lower.
- In the mid-1940s the Convair Models 116 and 118 looked exactly what you’d think a flying car would look like-a car with wings stuck on top. It flew 66 test flights before it crashed and was grounded.
- The AVE Mizar, (better known as the Flying Pinto) was half Pinto, half Cessna. In 1973 it crashed, killing its inventor.
- In 1950 Robert Fulton Jr.’s Airphibian was the first aircraft that was street legal to be certified by the Civil Aviation Administration.
- Currently, several flying cars are in the manufacturing stages with companies stating their vehicles will be available as early as 2018.
- Most of these vehicles are legal to fly under a Federal Aviation Administration category for ultralight aircraft (such as gliders).