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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.