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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