Aircraft designers always design an airplane around a central concept of functionality. However, sometimes they just want to prove their machine can fly. From UFO-like saucers to inflatable aircraft, designers have tried it all. Some of these bizarre creations became the source for future aircraft, while others are collecting dust in aviation museums. Here are ten strange aircrafts that actually existed:
10. The Goodyear Inflatoplane
To start off the list of strange aircrafts that actually existed let me just say that, building an inflatable airplane to rescue stranded pilots from the battlefield does not sound like a bright idea. However that’s exactly what Goodyear tried to do when they marketed their new Inflatoplane to the US army back in 1956. Naturally the army was impressed by this bizarre idea and asked Goodyear to develop some prototypes for testing. The initial prototype, the GA-33 was built and flown in less than 12 days. It was basically a giant fabric balloon, with an aircraft engine on the top. The wings, seat, and tail were made from a strong aviation fabric developed by Goodyear exclusively for the Inflatoplane. Called Airmat, it was made by weaving together layers of rubberized nylon with thousands of nylon threads. The rest of the fuselage was ordinary airship fabric. The pressure necessary to keep the airframe rigid was supplied by an air compressor, which was driven by the same 40 hp engine that propelled the airplane.
While not in use, the entire airplane and its motor could be packed into a box small enough to be carried around in a wheelbarrow. The box could also be carried in the back of a jeep, truck, or even dropped by parachute from an airplane. The big idea was to airdrop the packaged airplane behind enemy lines, the grounded soldier could then use a hand pump to inflate it and get it ready to fly in less than 6 minutes. Later prototypes such as the GA 468 and GA 467 included a more powerful 60hp engine, along with two-seater options.
After a lot of testing, the Army concluded that the airplane was simply not practical to be used as a rescue and reconnaissance aircraft. And it is not hard to see why, an inflatable rubber aircraft that flies at 55 miles per hour is not exactly the kind of extraction vehicle any soldier would want to get into. Besides, when the prototypes were delivered to the US Marine Corps for testing, the flaws in the design were revealed, when during a training flight one of the pilots exerted too much pressure on the aircraft frame, causing one of the wings to bend over and hit the propeller blades. The fabric wing got shredded and the canopy that supported the engine mounts collapsed due to loss of air pressure. The pilot was never able to escape as the engine collapsed right on top of him as he stood up to bail out. By 1959, Goodyear had stopped production of the Inflatoplanes and the program came to an end. None-the-less, it’s one of those strange aircrafts that actually existed.
9. The Stipa-Caproni
Also known as the “Flying Barrel”, this unique airplane was the brainchild of Italian aviation engineer Luigi Stipa and still is counted among the strange aircrafts that actually existed. After deeply studying the principles of fluid dynamics, he believed that if the engine and propeller were to be enclosed in a tapered tube like structure, the overall thrust output would be increased. He called his design the “intubed propeller”.
To test his theory he approached renowned Italian airplane maker Caproni in 1932, and began working on the prototype. The Stipa used a 120 hp De-Havilland Gipsy 3 engine, attached to a twin blade wooden propeller. The whole assembly was enclosed inside the over-sized tubular fuselage of the airplane. The results of the test flight proved that the new design was an aerodynamic miracle. Despite the weak engine and short wingspan of the test airplane, the aircraft showed great stability. It was however unable to attain a high speed because of the large amounts of drag generated by the fuselage. This restricted the top speed of the airplane to just 81 miles per hour. However Luigi did not care about the top speed. The readings proved that his design was fit to be applied to engines of larger aircraft such as personnel carriers and commercial airliners.
Luigi then approached the Italian Government and requested for funding to take his intubed propeller design to the next level. Even though the test pilots confirmed the benefits of his design, the government was more interested in speed, owing to the renewed interest in military aircraft design. Hence the Stipa Caproni project was scrapped.
8. The Blohm & Voss BV 141
Back in 1937, the Nazi air force was in need of a single engine reconnaissance aircraft. Two planes were favorites for the task-one was the Focke-Wulf 189 “Uhu”,the other was the Blohm & Voss BV-141(LINK 5) asymmetrical tactical reconnaissance aircraft. Later these came to be known as one of the strange aircrafts that actually existed. The Focke-Wulf was a conventional twin-boom, twin engine design and was officially declared the winner. However the BV 141 design was so promising that the ministry secretly decided to continue research on the aircraft.
Unlike any other aircraft of its time, the BV 141 used an asymmetrical approach; the airplane was divided into two separate sections, joined together by the wing. The main section housed the BMW power plant while the crew cabin was located away from the body, on the wing. The design was inspired by the ideals of former aviator Richard Vogt, who was a designer at Blohm & Voss. The asymmetrical design helped offset the massive torque generated by the rotation of the engine, which would cause a normal symmetrical airplane to always favor a certain side. The field of view from the separated cockpit was brilliant, since it was unhindered by the rotating propellers or body of the aircraft. The plane was by all means a better observation aircraft than the Focke-Wulf 189 and is undoubtedly of the strange aircrafts that actually existed.
When Ernst Udet, the man in charge of aircraft development at the ministry flew the airplane, he was impressed and placed an order for 500 aircraft. Unfortunately, despite production being in full swing with 20 aircraft already completed, the project came to a halt due to various factors. The German air ministry decided sometime later that the Focke-Wulf was already filling the air reconnaissance role quite well and the batch of 500 BV 141’s would not be needed. Later, an Allied bombing raid destroyed the main Focke-Wulf factory resulting in the shifting of approximately 80% of the Blohm & Voss workforce to manufacture Focke-Wulf aircraft.
7. The Hughes H4 Hercules
Back in 1942, the American government was in need of a large cargo airplane which could fly troops and supplies over the Atlantic, into Europe. It was World War 2, Nazi ships and submarines were constantly attacking American supply ships trying to reach Europe. Aviation tycoon and billionaire Howard Hughes responded with a proposal nobody thought was humanely possible at that time-the H4 Hercules. If completed, it would be the largest aircraft ever built as well as the largest flying boat ever. What makes it even more interesting is that when Hughes signed the contract with the Army, he was forbidden from using metals in the construction of his giant airplane, as it was wartime and metals were in short supply. So Hughes decided to make a giant wooden airplane which will later be counted as one of the strange aircrafts that actually existed.
The war dragged on and people began to doubt Hughes, he had not finished his giant airplane. The press began to taunt him by calling his creation the “Spruce Goose”. In reality though the airplane was made from laminated birch wood. Hughes continued working on the airplane until it was ready in 1947. During a short taxing run in the Long Beach Harbor area, Hughes decided to find out if his airplane can fly. It did, it flew for a mile, 70 feet above the ocean before Hughes bought it down. It has never been flown since and is the only one of its kind. Till date it holds the record for largest wingspan of any aircraft ever built, including giants such as the Antonov A-225 and the Airbus A380 and not-to-mention one of the strange aircrafts that actually existed.
6. Vought V-173/XF5U-1 “Flying Pancake”
This is definitely one of the most bizarre aircraft designs that easily fit among the strange aircrafts that actually existed, but apparently the weird design was not without purpose. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy wanted an aircraft which could take off and land in restricted areas, such as the deck of an aircraft carrier. This new aircraft was expected to combat the Japanese fighter airplanes and submarines. Vought was a company famous for producing great aircraft such as the iconic F4U Corsair fighter airplane. In 1942, they started working on the “Flying Flapjack” design, a shape that had no discreet nose, tail or wing section. Instead the whole body resembled a pancake like shape, with two propellers sticking out at the tip of each side.
The first prototype was called the V-173.It really impressed during the test runs, displaying the ability to take off and land at extremely low speeds. This was due to the fact that unlike most conventional aircraft, the entire body of the V-173 generated lift. It was also very stable and virtually stall-proof during flight. All this made it the perfect candidate for a carrier based fighter. Soon the Navy began funding the production and testing of an improved version the XF5U-1.
This was basically an upgraded V-173 with bigger engines and a larger body. It was also going to use a lightweight material called metallise for the aircraft body. Metallite was aluminium laminated to a balsa wood core. The XF5U was projected to have a top speed of 425 miles per hour, while having a landing speed of only 20 miles per hour. However the design suffered from excessive vibrations in the engine bays. These vibrations could potentially destabilize the aircraft mid-flight, hence test flights were delayed. By the time the problems had been solved, the war had ended and the military was shifting its focus towards jet aircraft which seemed much more promising. The only XF5U ever made was demolished with a wrecking crane and blowtorches but people still recall it as one of the strange aircrafts that actually existed.
5. The Bertini Beriev VVA 14
The Bartini VVA 14 was an experimental prototype seaplane developed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The designer of this bizarre aircraft was Italian born aviation engineer Robert Bartini. When the Soviet Union began to fear that the US would launch a nuclear assault on them from under the water with their submarines, they turned to the Beriev aircraft company which was well known for making seaplanes. They decided to build a submarine hunting amphibious aircraft that could take off from both land and water, could glide at high speeds on the surface of the ocean, as well as possess VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) abilities. If successfully developed, the VVA 14 would have proved to be a considerable threat to any Western naval force trying to invade Soviet waters.
Development on the initial prototypes started during the early 1970’s.The aircraft that is today recalled as among the strange aircrafts that actually existed, was designed around a central hull that resembled a bomber airplanes fuselage, with arm like structures extended out on either side to hold the pontoons. A single straight wing provided lift, and two turbofan engines provided the propulsion for aerial flight. The aircraft initially used inflatable pontoons, but switched to metal pontoons later, to allow high speed motion on the water. Two more turbofans were added to the front end of the fuselage to propel it at a high speeds on the water. Unfortunately the final design was never completed, as the company tasked with delivering the jet engines required for vertical takeoff never delivered on time. Bartini died in 1974,and with his death the aircraft began to face multiple issues during test runs and finally the project was abandoned. The last remaining VVA 14 sits in its dismantled state, at an air force museum in Monino, Moscow.
4. The Konstantin Kalinin K-7
One look at this aircraft and you can definitely tell where it came from Russia. Or in this case the Soviet Union, since this plane was built during the 1930’s.It’s purpose was to serve as a bomber/cargo aircraft. The K-7 was the largest propeller driven airplane of its time, with a wingspan greater than that of a B-52 therefore it has landed straight to this list of strange aircrafts that actually existed. It was created by former World War 1 aviator Konstantin Kalinin. The design of the aircraft was rather unorthodox, with a small central fuselage and giant, thick wings. The landing gear was integrated into the two pontoon like structures beneath the wings. Power was provided by a total of seven V12 engines, six in pull and one in push configuration. The plane was capable of carrying a crew of 19,along with 16 tons of bombs and 120 paratroopers in the giant wings. The weird structures below the wings held the landing gear, along with eight 7.62mm machine guns and eight 20mm cannons.
The first and only K-7 developed was involved in a total of seven test flights. It could fly which was pretty surprising, but also had some issues. During flight the tail sections would vibrate violently. The clever designers decided to weld giant pieces of steel to the tail booms in order to hold them in place instead of looking for any real issues with the aircraft. And thus test flights continued. However in one test flight, a tail section fractured and jammed the ailerons, causing the plane to crash. This accident resulted in the loss of 15 lives and was a great setback to the Soviet propaganda machine which had just shown the entire world its huge metal aircraft. Kalinin was captured by the police on charges of sabotaging his own aircraft, branded as a traitor and was eventually executed in 1938. The Konstantin Kalinin K-7 ranked fourth in our list of strange aircrafts that actually existed.
3. The Avro VZ9 Avrocar
The VZ9 was the result of the experiment carried out by Avro Canada and the US military to create a flying saucer so you can easily understand why it ended up in our list of strange aircrafts that actually existed. Clearly someone in the Pentagon had been watching too many alien movies. The military hoped the saucer would have stealth characteristics, be able to fly as high as 100,000 feet, and have a top speed exceeding mach 2. The proof-of-concept vehicle created by Avro was nowhere close to achieving these impressive goals set by the US military. Instead, it could barely go higher than 3 or 4 feet before losing control and the maximum speed was just 35 miles per hour. On top of that, piloting the aircraft was a huge pain because the centralized rotor would lift all the water from any puddles in the ground and shove it into the pilots face. So it was really difficult to fly without a protective windshield.
Numerous tests in the air tunnels at NASA revealed that the aircraft design was fundamentally flawed, and any attempt to increase the performance would require a complete overhaul of the basic design. After wasting more than $10 million on the project, the government finally decided it was in its best interests to abandon the project that attempted to create one of the strange aircrafts that actually existed.
2. The XF -85 Goblin
Long range bomber aircraft were extremely crucial to the air force of any country and World War 2 proved that fact. Although bombers were good at carrying large payloads over long distances, they could not deal with enemy fighter aircraft. And escort fighters could not keep up with the ever increasing range of bombers. So countries like USA and the Soviet Union began to test the concept of parasite fighters. The idea was to carry these small fighters inside the large bombers. While flying through hostile territory the fighters could be detached from the bomber, fight off enemy airplanes, and then re-dock with the mother ship. However any experiment to build a successful parasite fighter failed. The McDonell X-85 was an attempt in the 1950’s by the US military to build a parasite fighter that could be docked inside a B-36 to defend it in missions over Soviet targets.
The Goblin is the smallest jet fighter aircraft ever created, with an egg shaped body that was only 15 feet in length. It’s one of the strange aircrafts that actually existed. It was equipped with four .50-caliber machine guns to make up for its unimpressive size. Initially, it was mounted inside the body of a B-29 to test its performance before using it in the B-36. The Goblin would be lowered by hooking the front end to a trapeze that could extend out of the bomber during flight. Detaching was not a problem, and the tiny aircraft handled wonderfully. However, the biggest problem was re-entry. The propeller wash from the B-29 would throw the Goblin around in the air, so attaching the hook to the trapeze was nearly impossible.
Only 3 out of 7 re-entry attempts succeeded, and in one case the airplane crashed into the trapeze, smashing the front fuselage and cockpit canopy. Since the designers had not provided any landing gear, the pilot somehow crash landed the plane on a dry lake bed. Other the re-entry problems, the Goblin’s tiny engine and limited firepower would put it at a huge disadvantage against Soviet fighter aircraft. Due to the docking issues and weak performance, the USAF eventually cancelled the Goblin program. Later they began to focus on long range refueling aircraft, a far more practical solution to the bomber escort problem.
1. The Lun class Ekranoplane
Lun class Ekranoplane tops the list of strange aircrafts that actually existed. If there is one word to describe Soviet engineering, it is “huge”. This particular mammoth aircraft known as the Lun class MD-160, is a cross between an airplane and a ship. It “flies” only 16 feet above the water and can hit speeds in excess of 350 miles per hour. While the MD-160 may handle like a drunken man on roller skates, it comes loaded with some serious firepower just in case some American ship tries to mess with it. The top section of the fuselage is fitted with six sunburn SS-N-22 anti ship missile launchers. If any small threats such as boats or low flying airplanes appeared, the Lun was equipped with 23mm cannons and .50-caliber machine guns.
During the Cold War, the Soviets were experimenting with a special kind of aircraft known as an ekranoplan. These aircraft took advantage of the lift generated by flying extremely close to the water surface, and could glide at high speeds over the oceans. This resulted in increased fuel efficiency as well as stealth, because radar which at that time was not capable of detecting aircraft flying at such low altitudes. The first and only Lun class ever made was designed to be a high speed personnel transport/anti-ship vehicle. It was deployed in the Black Sea Navy Fleet back in 1987,and remained in service until the late 90’s.
The aircraft weighed a hefty 350 tons, and was longer than the Spruce Goose. It could cruise on the ocean surface at more than 350 miles per hour, faster than any ship, making it an excellent interceptor vehicle. It could also sneak through enemy radar and launch a volley of anti-ship missiles before the enemy realized it was even there. However the Lun’s large size would make it an easy target for fighter aircraft, hence an escort crew of aircraft and boats would be needed. Plans to build a second Lun class ekranoplan for the purpose of a quick reaction field hospital began in the late 1980’s but the fall of the Soviet Union saw the end of the program just as the second aircraft was about to be completed. The MD-160 was removed from service in 1997 and now lies inactive at a naval station in Kaspiyisk.
Written by – Saurav Rath