From a rubber inflatable aircraft, to a Goblin, to a Pancake, to one of the original drones ever made – these strange and experimental aircraft throughout military history are sure to amaze. Enjoy.
Vought V-173 “Flying Pancake”
The Vought V-173, or the “Flying Pancake”, was a uniquely designed military aircraft built and tested by Chance Vought during the Second World War to put Charles H. Zimmerman’s theories on low-aspect ratio wing design to the test. The goal was to be able to take off and land at very low speeds while maintaining the ability to reach high speeds when necessary in the air. Vought believed that by placing the propellers on the wing tips and creating a uniform flow of air over the body of the craft (i.e. pancake), these goals could be achieved. After pursuing this thought with NACA and developing it further, he was motivated to go to private sector. In 1940, the Flying Pancake was built under a U.S. Navy contract and on Nov 23, 1942, it took it’s very first flight. Military aircraft junkies are still talking about this incredible feat of engineering some 70 years later and we can certainly see why.
Lockheed Martin P-791
This curious looking military aircraft is Lockheed Martin’s P791 Hybrid Air Vehicle (HAV). Its uses as both a military vehicle and transport carrier are highly valuable and the advantages of this kind of Air Vehicle cannot be ignored. Also known as a “SkyCat”, the P791 lands and takes off vertically, requires almost no ground infrastructure (just a reasonably flat surface) and can be suspended in the air for up to three weeks at a time. It can also be constructed to be manned or unmanned, making it great for both military intelligence gathering and cargo transport. The SkyCat is also superior in fuel efficiency, consuming around 70% less fuel per tonne kilometer than a typical aircraft carrier. Lockheed is planning to release a variety of sizes of the HAV and are expecting to see these in the air by 2017. We’re excited to see where this new aircraft technology can take us – literally!
McDonnell XF-85 Goblin
What the McDonnell Aircraft Corp. XF-85 Goblin lacked in size, it made up for in ferocity. The Goblin is the smallest jet-propelled fighter ever built, and is what is referred to as a “parasite” aircraft. This was because it was carried by a B-36 Bomber and in the case that the host ship was attacked, the Goblin would be propelled from the bomb bay in order to protect it. Free of landing gear and shaped like a metal egg, it would be recovered once it was launched using a hook and retractable trapeze hidden under the host plane. What if the Goblin could not be recovered? Well, it was this very issue that became a big problem for the tiny jet and would ultimately lead to cancellation of the test program all together. You can see one of the two prototypes built by McDonnell at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
You’re probably familiar with the famous Goodyear blimps that have been hanging out in the sky for many years now. What you may not know is that Goodyear also gave producing inflatable rubber military aircraft a try in the 1950s. The Inflatoplane was a rubber aircraft – an experimental aircraft – that could be packed up in a 44 cubic foot box, transported easily by military trucks or aircraft and could be inflated in roughly 5 minutes. The pilot started the two-stroke engine by hand and it could fly for around 275 miles. One of the many ways Goodyear claimed the Inflatoplane would be of use was to have it dropped by air over enemy lines for trapped soldiers to use to fly out of the area and save themselves. Interesting concept, but it never really caught on.
A mere twelve Inflatoplanes were produced. The concept of a rubber, inflatable plane has been of interest to aeronautical engineers for some time. A plane that could bounce or brace itself in the event of a crash rather than disintegrating upon impact would be a huge win for the aircraft industry, not to mention those in the cockpit. Maybe someday.
De Lackner HZ-1 Aerocycle – Experimental Aircraft
It’s hard to believe this next strange aircraft was ever considered for use in the military, but the US Army are an adventurous bunch. It’s called the HZ-1 Aerocycle and it was designed by De Lackner Helicopter Company of Mount Vernon, New York. Charles H. Zimmerman of NACA (NASA’s predecessor) proposed the theory that a helicopter could be steered by shifting the pilot’s weight if its rotors were placed at the bottom of the aircraft. It was from this theory that the HZ-1 Aerocycle experimental aircraft was created. It had 15-foot rotor blades and a 4 cylinder motor located on a circular platform. The test pilot for the Aerocycle was an Army pilot with over 5 years of flight experience. Despite the fact that the Aerocycle was supposed to be able to be easily flown with around just 20 minutes of flight instruction, it was clear that the aircraft was going to be difficult to operate even for experienced pilots. And at a top speed of around 70 mph, calling it dangerous was an understatement. Needless to say the concept was abandoned but you can still find one on display at the Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, VA.
Lockheed XFV Salmon
Like most of the contraptions on this list, our next strange military aircraft was created out of a need for a capability that didn’t exist. This time it was for a plane that could take off and land without a runway. How do you accomplish that? Vertical take off and landing, of course. Lockheed Martin won the military contract to develop the aircraft and the XFV-1 was born. It would eventually get the nickname “Salmon” from the prototype’s test pilot, Herman Salmon. The look of the plane was different to say the least and there was skepticism concerning how it would perform from the beginning. The Salmon was able to achieve some successes over the 4 years of development and testing. But, by June 1955, the project was cancelled and the XFV-1 would be added to the pile of concepts never to take to the US skies.
Convair F2Y Sea Dart
The next military aircraft was also developed for its unique take off and landing capabilities. The Sea Dart would be the first supersonic jet that could take off and land from the water. Why was the water aspect so important? Well, airports and air strips are extremely vulnerable during times of war and are typically the first targets for bombings from the enemy. Seaplanes were traditionally not built for speed so this would be a completely new and potentially game changing kind of aircraft. The Sea Dart conquered the water with the help of hydro-skis that would retract once in the air. The skis were a cool feature, but they caused take off and landing to be extremely rough. It took a lot of ingenuity to fix this issue but it was eventually perfected. On August 3rd, 1954, the Sea Dart became the first and only seaplane to hit Mach 1.
The Hiller X-18
The Hiller X-18 was another VTOL concept created after the Second World War. What is VTOL? It stands for Vertical Take Off & Landing, and if you’ve been reading through this list, it’s probably becoming apparent that the US military was extremely interested in conquering this concept. This particular VTOL also needed to have the capability to take off and land normally when air strips were available. Compared to other VTOLs of the time, the X-18 was very large and bulky, and featured three engines, two three-bladed propellers and a 14.6 meter wing span. Only one prototype was made and it would complete twenty short flights before the ambitious concept was cancelled. The X-18 experimental aircraft was sent off the scrap yard and it was back to the drawing board.
Curtiss Wright VZ-7
The Curtiss-Wright VZ-7, though strange looking, was a rather simple design created when the Army Transportation Corps needed a jeep-like flying vehicle. The VZ-7 consisted of four vertically-mounted propellers attached to a central frame in a square pattern. As you can see in the photo, the pilot’s seat was located in the central fuselage along with the single turbine engine and fuel tanks. Originally, the prototypes were built with ducted fans but were eventually modified to intruded propellors like you see in the photo. Through test flights, it was discovered that the VZ-7 excelled in a few areas such as hovering capability and stability in forward flight. However, the prototypes consistently failed in the ability to meet the altitude and speed requirements that the ATC set for the project. Due to these shortcomings, the VZ-7 was withdrawn from production in the mid 1960s and it was back to the drawing board.
Blohm & Voss BV 141
The Blohm & Voss Bv 141 is an unusual concept created by the Germans in the 1930s. What’s so unique about the Bv 141 is its asymmetrical design. During Nazi control, the Germans found they needed a plane with better observation visibility to scout targets. With the tail boom and radial engine on one side, and a windscreen encased crew compartment on the other, the Bv 141 was unlike anything built before. It was also built to hold weaponry, and the third prototype built in 1938 would hold four 7.92 mm machine guns;two forward firing and two rear firing. It was also equipped with racks to hold four small bombs. Unfortunately with all of this ingenuity, the Bv 141 remained underpowered in speed compared to the Allied fighter’s military aircraft, and the Germans needed all of their man power focused on defending against constant Allied bombings. The Bv 141 was abandoned after only 23 were built.
Avro Canada VZ-9 Avrocar
In recent years, the US Air Force declassified documents that revealed information regarding a top secret program in the 1950s in which a “flying saucer” aircraft was being developed and tested. The photos certainly look like something out of a science fiction movie, but apparently Program 1794 was very real. Developed by USAF and Avro Canada, the prototype was to be capable of ‘between Mach 3 and Mach 4’ and if you aren’t sure what kind of speed that equates to, think somewhere in the 2,300 to 3,000 mph range. It was also to be capable of extremely high altitudes – 100,000 feet to be exact. The peculiar military aircraft would move by rotating its outer disk at extremely high speeds thanks to a phenomenon known as the Coandă effect, and it would be maneuvered by small shutters on the edges of the disk. We’re not sure if Project 1794 ever completed a test flight, however it would definitely help explain the “UFO” sightings around this time in history!
North American XF-82 Military Aircraft
During World War II, the US was in need of long duration escort fighter planes that could bring B-29 bombers all the way to Japan. The US already had some great long range fighter escort planes, so the thought was to combine two existing long range fighters to create one ultra long range aircraft. The idea started with two P-51 fighters, which would become a little more difficult to achieve than they thought. By the end of it, the resulting P-82 consisted of less than 20% of the same parts as the P-51 due to increased weight, larger control surfaces, and increased fuselage length. The P-82 had roughly a 51ft wingspan and was around 15,000 pounds completely empty. It was quite fast for a propeller driven fighter and could reach 40,000 feet. The P-82 was being used by the USAAF (which would eventually become the USAF) and was changed to the F-82 for “fighter” rather than “pursuit”. The F-82s went on reserve status during WWII once more capable fighter jets came into use, but they did play a key role during the Korean war. The F-82 Mustang was the military aircraft responsible for taking down the first three North Korean planes.
Bartini Beriev VVA-14
Driven by competition from the US to build bigger and better military aircrafts after WWII, the Soviet Union came up with some very ambitious concepts in the 1960s and 70s. One such wacky idea was the Bartini Beriev VVA-14, an amphibious vertical take off aircraft built for both high altitude flying and skimming the surface of the water using the “ground effect”. It had inflatable pontoons beneath its wings and was intended to combat NATO’s Polaris missile submarines used during the Cold War. The Star Wars-esque ship only required a 3 man crew, small for such a large aircraft. It completed around 100 hours of flight time before the project was cancelled following its designer’s, Robert Bartini, death in 1974. There is only one VVA-14 in tact at the Russian Air Force Museum just outside of Moscow.
Douglas X-3 Stiletto
This sleek, experimental aircraft is the Douglas X-3 Stiletto. It was built to accomplish a long list of ambitious goals during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some of those goals included taking off and landing under its own power, achieve and maintain Mach 2 speeds, and to fly at very high altitudes. Another goal was to get more intel on what was possible using low-aspect ratio wings as little was known at the time. Unfortunately, there were problems from the beginning. The first prototype that was completed and delivered to the Edwards Air Force Base in California suffered from engine and frame issues causing loss of confidence in the concept all together. A total of 26 test flights were made and the results weren’t promising. It never achieved the lofty goals it was created to accomplish but it’s still a symbol of the ingenuity and ambition of the US Air Force in the years following WWII.
Dornier Do 31
With its needle nose and bulky wings, the Dornier Do 31 was a sight to behold. West Germany had it built as an experimental VTOL aircraft and it remains the only VTOL jet transport aircraft in existence. It was the late 1960s and the aircraft needed to meet NATO requirements as a tactical support aircraft in order to work with the EWR VJ 101 VTOL strike aircraft. There were three prototypes of this bizarre military aircraft built throughout the 1960s. The first had Pegasus engines for horizontal flight only, the second was a test airframe that did not fly at all, and the third had both the Pegasus engines and RB162 engines for lift (VTOL). The latter had a total of 10 engines and took its first flight in July 1967. It successfully completed the hover test later that year. While the Dornier Do 31 was quite successful in what it set out to accomplish, it was too costly to continue and the project was ended in 1970.
XB-70 Valkyrie Experimental Aircraft
The XB-70 Valkyrie is an impressive military aircraft whose legacy would wind up being something totally different than what it set out to accomplish. Originally built to be the baddest manned strategic bomber ever known, with a planned cruise speed of Mach 3 at altitudes of around 70,000 feet, it was an exciting concept. The design not only looked cool, the wing structure is what theoretically would make the aircraft preform so well. All the while, there was another aviation arena garnering a lot of attention known as supersonic transport. It just so happened that the size and material of the XB-70 Valkyrie was ideal for testing SST and its purpose was then officially changed from manned bomber to research aircraft. It’s early test flights provided a lot of valuable information for SST designers including aircraft noise and the reliability of wind tunnel predictions versus actual flight findings. Unfortunately, there were two casualties during the testing of this aircraft which complicated the program. It remains one of the most valuable research planes ever made.
Caspian Sea Monster
As its name suggests, the “Caspian Sea Monster” or the MD-160 is a beast of an aircraft. It was developed perhaps unsurprisingly by the Soviet Union and its stats are pretty amazing. The Sea Monster weighed around 550 tons and was 240 feet long. Its wingspan was a whopping 144 feet (bigger than any commercial airliners) and it was more than 60ft tall. This thing could carry a load of troops or equipment and that would come in handy for the Soviet Unions nuclear missiles. It could travel pretty fast too – around 350 mph. Where it was severely lacking was in maneuverability and altitude. The seaplane could only fly about 20 feet off the water. And if there was a turn in the aircraft’s course, the pilot had to be extremely careful. If either of the wings touched the water, the whole thing could go tumbling over the water. Despite these obvious drawbacks, the Soviet Union continued making the MD-160s up until the fall of the USSR.
The XF-91 Thunderceptor was built to determine the effectiveness of the use of rocket power in jet fighter combat. The result was a pretty amazing military aircraft. It was the late 1940s and US Air Force were hell bent on creating the most innovative aircrafts possible to stay ahead of its enemies. The Thunderceptor became the fastest fighter of its time period and its design was incredibly unique. It had spade like wings that were thicker and wider at the ends than at the base. The wings were also adjustable to accommodate the best angle for landing and take off as well as cruising. The rocket boost turned out to be problematic for mass production and its operational use, and the Thunderceptor was never green lighted into production. It does remain a highly regarded aircraft of its time and many believe it should have lit up the skies and shown its true potential.
The next strange military aircraft is the Japanese J7W1 Shinden. This funky looking aircraft is what is referred to as a “canard” configuration. Canard is a French word meaning obscure but is used in aviation to describe aircraft with a small fixed wing at the front and the larger main wing at the back. The engine and propeller were in the back of the plane and the nose held four Type 5 cannons helping to balance out the weight. Strangely, the Japanese Navy ordered a fleet of the aircrafts before ever testing them out, however the chaos of the war hindered the production of the planes. It was test flown only three times and clocked only 45 minutes of flight time over a short period of time. The Shinden and other Japanese aircrafts were taken by the US military after the war but it is thought to never have been flown on US soil.
Northrop Grumman Pegasus X47A
The X-47 Pegasus is an unmanned air vehicle built by Northrop Grumman in 2001. It’s the only modern day aircraft we have on this list but we think it’s peculiar enough to take note of. Let’s look at the stats. It’s obvious the Pegasus doesn’t lack on the stealth factor. It is almost diamond shaped with a 55° backward sweep on the leading edge and a 35° forward sweep on the trailing edge. Its wingspan is roughly 8.5m and it is 8.5m in length. Scaled Composites Inc of Mohave, California were responsible for creating the unique, all-carbon composite airframe that has no tail or vertical fin. The goal in building this interesting air vehicle was to determine the viability of an autonomous UAV and its key technologies. There is still a lot to learn about this sleek and futuristic machine and we are looking forward to learning more.
We think you’d really enjoy seeing these military aircraft that civilians can own!