We don't know if you've ever tried it, but trust us when we say that building aircraft is really, really hard. It takes large teams of smart people a long time and a lot of money. Building a military aircraft is even harder -- it not only needs to fly, it needs to survive repeated attacks and make other planes dead. So you can imagine the care and expense nations put into building them.
But sometimes, they just slap something together and send the pilot off to die.
It was a pretty simple idea. During World War I, the British Royal Aircraft Factory, or RAF, wanted a fighter plane with guns that could shoot forward. So they took an existing plane and stuck a gunner onto the front of it. Seems like a pretty straightforward solution.
The only problem ...
Their method of adding a gunner? Strapping him in front of the propeller in a plywood box that earned the nickname "the pulpit," presumably to try to remind the gunner that he was about to meet God.
Should the BE. experience even the lightest crash, the gunner was guaranteed to be crushed by the firing V8 engine mounted to his back. It honestly didn't matter, however, since the gunner was much more likely to be sucked into the whirling propeller blades like a Bond villain long before then.
Because there was no shielding used whatsoever between the gunner and the roaring vortex of death behind him, anything loose on his person, be it a scarf, wallet or goddamn arm while swinging the gun, was instantly sucked into the propeller blades. The gunner had no choice but to literally hold on for dear life until he either tired out or landed. And because the screaming engine was placed between the helpless gunner and the plane's oblivious pilot, the gunner had no way to communicate his fatigue to the pilot until the spray of his guts hit him in the face.
Low on airports and resources, and destined to lose and spend the next century as the go-to villain for lazy sci-fi writers, the Nazis needed a plane that could turn the tables. The Natter promised to be that plane. And it lied.
Instead of taking off from a conventional runway, the Natter saved space and time by being launched with rockets off a vertical structure. Once in the air, it would take down enemy aircraft with its own weapons before ejecting both the pilot and its rocket engine. Its cheap build was mostly wood, and it had a wingspan of only about 12 feet. And because there was no landing or takeoff, the pilot (supposedly) needed no training to fly!
What could possibly go wrong?
The only problem ...
OK, let's review: The plan was to take a tiny wooden plane with a wingspan shorter than a Mini Cooper, power it with rockets capable of over 4,000 pounds of thrust, aim it straight up into the air, pilot it with some random dude not considered a good enough pilot to fly a regular plane, and send the whole rig careening off into the clouds at 500 mph.
Oh, and its weapons? Thirty-six unguided rockets. Because if you're going to base an airplane on what's basically a suicidal mad-lib rocket and have it flown by whoever called "not it" last, you might as well throw three dozen more rockets into the mix.
"More rockets! -- Hitler"
The amazing thing is that, from the day the idea was first mentioned in the Nazi "Increasingly Ludicrous Ideas Proposal Meetings," it was designed, built and given its first test flight just six months later. Most people spend longer deciding on cell phone providers than the Nazis did planning this rocket-fueled disaster.
It was the T-Mobile of fighter planes.
And because the war made supplies hard to come by, huge corners were cut in its construction. Like an eight-year-old pasting together models, the Nazis made the Natter out of wood and glue because, hell, at this point they're just making their "pilots" a flying coffin anyway. They also couldn't afford to make an ejection seat, instead letting the (and we cannot stress this enough) woefully unready pilot unbuckle himself and leap out while going over 600 mph, but not before opening the canopy held on by an old furniture hinge.
The first and only manned test flight ended when the canopy ripped off in mid-flight, striking the pilot in the head and sending the plane screaming into the ground. Finally seeing the ridiculousness of the Natter's design, the Nazis abandoned this aircraft for good ... but not before building 36 more for immediate use.
Those wacky Nazis. When will they learn?
Almost all of them were intentionally destroyed not for their insanity, but because the Nazi designers feared the Americans would steal this awesome technology. The question of why the Americans would want to steal the designs for a plane that killed more of its own crew than any enemies is the main reason why Hitler's brain is preserved in a jar to this day.
An agile German fighter plane during World War I, the Albatross D-III was amazingly aerodynamically advanced for its time. Its final redesign was very quick and maneuverable, making it a favorite for this guy named Manfred von Richthofen, otherwise known as the Red Baron.
The Red Baron flew it, racked up over a dozen kills, painted it red and made it one of the most iconic fighter planes in history. The final redesign, that is.
The only problem ...
There were problems with the early designs. No big deal. It could just, you know, literally melt the pilot's face off.
Face-melting ain't nothin' but a thing.
The plane's radiator was mounted directly above the pilot's head. Though this made it aerodynamic, any slight damage caused it to shoot its boiling contents straight into the pilot's face.
Imagine it like a clown getting hit in the face with a pie at the end of a joke, except instead of pie, it's a lava-hot, face-melting stream of water, and instead of a clown, it's a surprised pilot hundreds of feet in the air, and instead of being at the end of a joke, it was every time its wings cracked, which was all the time, thanks to another flaw that caused the wings to fail at high speeds.
Typical German pilot, circa 1916
In fact, the first draft of the Albatros D-III nearly succeeded in something thousands of men before it had failed at: killing the Red Baron. He suffered the wing-cracking problem during a flight and managed to land (many other pilots weren't so lucky) and refused to fly the damned thing until they fixed the design. This is a guy who routinely flew through thunderstorms and enemy territory to fight nearly a hundred battles against superior forces, and he felt spending another second flying in the D-III was too dangerous.
After WWI, Soviet Russia got to building planes the same way it built everything else: huge, and terrifying to look at.
Russia isn't exactly a subtle country.
The Kalinin K-7 was no exception. Measuring over 92 feet long, it had a 174-foot wingspan, making it bigger than the B-52. It had seven engines, seven gunners and 12 crew members were needed to keep the behemoth in the air.
The Soviets planned to use the massive K-7 as a bomber, a cargo plane and, upon Stalin's bafflingly hypocritical request, a luxury high-end transport for VIPs. And because it could fit 120 people on board, the Soviets planned to drop bombs, paratroopers or even a goddamned tank out of it.
The only problem ...
There's a concept taught in middle school science called "resonance." If the right frequency is emitted, an object will resonate sympathetically. The designers of the K-7 were not familiar with this concept and equipped it with engines that hummed at the same frequency as the plane. On the K-7's maiden voyage, its tail shook like it was trying to escape from the rest of the craft, and the pilots were forced to land it before it fell apart.
"Perhaps if we made it larger ..."
Luckily, using the keen attention to detail that Stalin-era Russia was known for, the engineers sought out a subtle, elegant solution to the K-7's aerodynamic flaws ... oh, wait, no, they just haphazardly grabbed steel beams and welded the tail on. Carnies show more care repairing their dragon wagons with gum and duct tape than the Soviet engineers did fixing the K-7. Certain that this would be enough to fix that pesky wobbling tail, they held another test flight. We'll give you one guess as to how that turned out.
After the tail vibrated itself off, the airplane plunged straight into the ground. Upon seeing the colossal failure that was the K-7, Stalin understood and forgave its designer, Konstantin Kalinin. But not before arresting and executing him as an enemy of the state.
And that was the last time a Soviet engineer ever cut corners.