8 WTF Aircraft Designs That Actually Caught Air
Ask any 6-year-old kid to draw an airplane, and he can do it -- it's a couple of wings and a couple of fins attached to a long thing in the middle. The engines are either on the wings, or stuck to the fuselage. Even the most space-age fighter aircraft don't stray far from that template.
But aircraft designers can think outside the box just like everybody else. And what's most surprising of all is that all of the insane designs below actually flew, with varying degrees of success.
De Lackner HZ-1 Aerocycle
Oh, bullshit. That thing looks less plausible than 80 percent of Inspector Gadget's inventory. But yes, it was real, and yes, it flew.
In the 1950s, the American soldier needed to get across a battlefield, but also needed to avoid things like mines, which vehicles have a nasty habit of detonating. The aerocycle seemed perfect for the job, regardless of how stupid it looked. It was basically an open air, stand-up helicopter crossed with a Segway.
It looks like something Johnny Quest should be riding.
And we didn't just throw out that Segway comparison at random -- operators would steer this contraption by "shifting their weight." Oh, and it was amphibious, too. Amazingly, things looked great in development, with Army brass saying the aerocycle was the modern equivalent of cavalry horses. And while having a battalion of flying soldiers riding open, whirling blades into battle sounds awesome, it was sadly not meant to be.
On the plus side, the fate of this aerocycle's pilot lead to the invention of salsa.
They started testing untrained men on the aerocycle prototypes, figuring the intuitive controls would be like riding a bike. And it actually was like riding a bike, in that you have to crash a bunch before you finally figure it out (it didn't help that the craft would pitch wildly in windy conditions). Even testing for the device's parachute went badly. Out of the dozen built, only one survived until the end of the project in 1957. And you know what? We still kind of want one.
This thing was made for beer and aquatic Frisbee golf.
In 1943, the Brits needed two things: a way to get vehicles quickly out of firefights, and a way to deploy vehicles so they aren't an easy target. British engineers thought, You would need a Jeep-like helicopter to do that! Thus, the Hafner Rotabuggy was born.
No, we didn't just run an old G.I. Joe cartoon through a black and white filter.
Despite an outlandish design that was eccentric even by British standards, testing went fairly well with both the flying and driving aspects (despite problems like difficulty flying in high-wind speeds and, we imagine, the temptation to turn on the rotors while on the ground to try to plow through enemy infantry like a lawnmower). Hafner was just about to score a major contract in late 1944, but other more conventional aircraft soon proved to be much better for carrying armored vehicles than, say, a ridiculous flying Jeep. The contract was canceled, but the Rotabuggy lives on in museums, and in the dreams of every reader who is right now imagining chopping their way through a zombie apocalypse in one of them.
When you get bored, you just fly away.
It's rare for the words "durable" and "inflatable" to wind up in the same product description with any kind of honesty. Yet, when the U.S. Army needed some inexpensive new ways to make rescue aircraft, they decided to give the inflatable inflatoplane a chance in 1955.
"Who wouldn't trust their life to a plane that could be crippled by a thumbtack?"
Made of a rubber and nylon mix, the plane took only about five minutes to inflate, and could fly as fast as 72 mph.
"We have too many pilots, and we can't afford to pay pensions for all of them."
But the Army kind of knew things were off when they saw it only took three months to design and build the thing (normal planes usually go through years of research and development alone). They soon figured out that refueling was a nightmare, as fabric does not usually make an ideal gas tank. Also, it could only take an additional load of 240 pounds, which meant bad news for the overweight soul hoping to be rescued. Testing was also a nightmare, especially when the aircraft banked slightly and the wings would fall off.
While the dozen or so built somehow did make a few successful rescues, the accidents and overall ridiculousness of the design outweighed any benefit. After the Army's official position comically stated in 1960 that there was no "valid military use for an aircraft that could be brought down by a well-aimed bow and arrow," the project would be canceled in 1962.
Word got out that the Russians were training anti-aircraft mosquitoes.
What, you thought planes needed wings to fly? You owe the XF5U an apology, buddy.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy was fighting in the Pacific and needed planes that could save on fuel but also fly extremely fast, regardless of how fucking ridiculous they looked. That led to the XF5U -- a disc-shaped plane that looked like a UFO (and in fact got reported as such during test flights), nicknamed "the flying flapjack."
Two of them were built, and testing somehow went pretty well. Innovations in the propellers reduced drag, making the plane much more efficient. But the Navy then decided to switch to jet-powered planes just after the war, dooming the propeller-driven XF5U and its highly unconventional design. When it came time to destroy the prototype, the thing was so solidly built they had to use a wrecking ball ... and the first two strikes didn't even leave a dent in it.
Couldn't the government recoup its development costs by selling old experimental planes to super-villains?
XP-82 Twin Mustang
"The P-51 Mustang is a pretty awesome plane. But what could be even better? Hmm ... wait, we've got it! Take two P-51's, weld them at the wing and then ... well, that's actually about it." And thus was born the XP-82.
It was the only aircraft ever to inspire a Doublemint commercial.
Believe it or not, the Twin Mustang actually did quite well. With one cockpit dedicated to flying, and the other dedicated to sonar or weapons, the Twin Mustang was efficient, alert and did tag=team damage to those who dared to attack the Siamese twin of the Air Force freak show. Also, it was perfect for when the pilot and co-pilot hated each other, or when one of them smelled bad.
"I keep telling you Jim, that hippy salt deodorant does fuck all for your B.O."
While early designs had some issues getting into the air and pilots complained that that flying from that off-center position proved somewhat difficult, it passed testing just after World War II ended. They served well in Korea, escorting large aircraft and occasionally taking out Chinese planes. But replacement parts became hard to get as production for other planes began stepping up with the growing Cold War. By the end of the Korean War, the Twin Mustang fad was over.
"Screw it. Let's sell them all to Bespin."
Vertical liftoff planes (that is, planes that can take off straight up and don't need a runway) are commonplace now, but getting there took a lot of insane trial and error. For instance, you have the XFV-1, one of two competing designs that did the same thing: sit on their tails and buzz straight into the sky.
That other plane looks sort of embarrassed to be seen with it.
After a brief test flight in 1953, its first full flight came in 1954, and defied all expectations by actually taking off vertically and hovering.
So what's the problem? Watch the video. The ass-down method seems fine for taking off, but then you have to land. It forced the pilot to land blind, or try to look back over their shoulder as they carefully -- carefully -- eased the tiny, ridiculous little wheels back onto the pavement. Imagine trying to do that in an emergency, or onto the deck of a battleship bobbing up and down in rough seas (which is, in fact, what the XFV-1 was designed for).
"Shit. Nobody brought a ladder?"
The program ended in 1955, and the only XFV-1 ever built went to a museum in Florida.
Aerospacelines Pregnant Guppy
All right, let's all just admit now that we apparently have no clue how the principles of flight actually work. If that thing can catch air, then apparently you can just slap wings and propellers onto any old thing and you're up in the clouds.
We're going to go ahead and call "Photoshop."
The Aerospacelines 21024V was created out of necessity. NASA needed a way to get huge Saturn V parts from California to Texas and Florida for the upcoming moon landings. So, they bought a Pan Am jet and lit their blowtorches. The top of the plane was extended up over 10 feet, the cabin was bloated out and the entire back of the plane was detachable for easier loading of huge cargo.
This would have made a fantastic Micro Machine playset.
When it rolled out, it was immediately called the "Pregnant Guppy" because the name obviously makes complete sense (guppies are enormous and give birth through their brains, right?). Van Nuys airport officials in California were so nervous about the thing crashing that each time the plane took off, they called police and fire officials "just in case."
But the Pregnant Guppy was safe, and even spawned a few other guppy planes, such as the super guppy and the wonderfully named Sky Monster. The guppies were in regular NASA use until the end of the 1970s.
Somehow, we expected more fangs.
And ... we owe that other vertical liftoff plane from earlier an apology. This is the far more insane version France came up with.
The Coleoptere (French for "annular" or "cylindrical") had an even more unusual design than the XFV-1. But if you can believe it, having an enlarged bottom and retractable short wings actually helped during early trials. Well, it helped when taking off, anyway.
They didn't call it the "Flying Nipple." But they should have.
Unfortunately, they forgot about the whole "flying" aspect, which if you think about it, is pretty important to an aircraft design. Test pilots said the plane was extremely unstable during flight, which probably had something to do with having no real wings to speak of.
"So ... what if I want to go any direction but 'up'?"
On only its ninth flight, the Coleoptere crashed and burned, at which point the French military entered the "what were we thinking?" phase of the experimental aircraft design cycle. The program was ended in the early 1960s, and nothing that looked remotely like it was ever attempted again.
For more head-scratching designs, check out 7 Planes Perfectly Designed (To Kill The People Flying Them) and 7 WTF Military Weapons You Won't Believe They Actually Built.