For decades, people all over the world have reported seeing saucer-shaped crafts darting across the sky. These sightings are attributed to any number of things: swamp gas, ball lightning, and of course, extra-terrestrials visiting Earth. If you happened to spot one near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the late 1950’s however, there’s a chance it didn’t come from a faraway galaxy… It probably came from Canada.
In 1952, the Canadian government provided initial funding for what would come to be called the Avrocar; a saucer-shaped aircraft intended to offer vertical takeoff and landing capabilities in a supersonic fighter-bomber of the future. The cost of development, however, would soon prove to be too much for the Canadian government, prompting them to scrap the Avrocar project, and allowing the United States to sign a deal with Avro to continue development for the American military under the title “Project 1794.”
The design for the Avrocar was based on using the exhaust from the turbojet engines to power a circular “turborotor” that would create thrust. When pointed downward, the thrust would create a cushion of air known as a “ground effect” that would permit it to hover. When redirected out the back of the saucer-shaped craft, it was hoped to propel the Avrocar to speeds in excess of MACH 2.
Two vehicles were produced, with the designation VZ-9AV Avrocar, and were sent to Wright-Patterson for testing. “VZ” stood for “experimental vertical flight,” “9” for the ninth concept proposal, and “AV” for Avro, the company that produced the models.
The Army and Air Force were both on the market for different types of vehicles; the Army wanted a subsonic, all terrain troop transport and reconnaissance craft, while the Air Force was on the market for a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft that could hover below enemy radar before zooming off at supersonic speeds. Early designs and projections of the Avrocar’s performance led officials from both branches to believe they may be able to get everything they were each looking for from a single platform. One declassified memo from the project’s development claimed the saucer would be capable of “between Mach 3 and Mach 4,” (2,300-3,000 mph), a service ceiling of over 100,000 feet (30,500m), and a range of around 1,000 nautical miles (1,150mi, 1850km).
Tests conducted at Wright-Patterson AFB proved the “ground effect” air cushion beneath the craft would become dangerously unstable just a few feet off the ground. It was also completely incapable of reaching anything even close to supersonic speeds – having attained a maximum controllable speed of only 35 miles per hour during testing. Wind tunnel tests conducted by America’s fledgling space administration, NASA, showed the design to have insufficient control surfaces for high-speed flight, and led to them declaring the Avrocar “aerodynamically unstable.”
The Air Force quickly realized the Avrocar would not be able to fit their needs, but development continued for a short time through Army funding, as they still hoped it might eventually come to serve their subsonic purposes. Eventually though, even the Army would give up on having its own fleet of flying saucers.
After the second iteration of the Avrocar failed to be controllable at altitudes any higher than just three feet, the project was scrapped in 1961, relegating the two test model flying saucers to museums. The first prototype found its way to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in 2007, and the second eventually wound up in the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Although the Avrocar proved to be a disappointment, even disappointments have an intrinsic value through the scope of history. Now, with both Avrocars in museums, they offer a glimpse into our continued drive to innovate.
“They get a feel for what people were doing back then,” says Dave Lazzarine, a restoration supervisor who worked on the Avrocar. He believes engineers still come to see the models for a form of inspiration. Like the team behind the Avrocar, scientists and engineers continue to work to push the boundaries of what we think is possible for a combat aircraft to do.
“They are always trying to invent something that doesn’t exist.” Lazzarine added. Of course, not everyone believes the project was truly ended in 1961, and conspiracy theorists around the world think the flying saucers seen in the skies today may simply be the latest design of U.S. Avrocars.
Unlikely as it may seem, that might offer a better explanation than Martians. So if you ever happen to find yourself witness to a UFO hovering overhead, look for an American flag on the window.
You never know.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons