A look at some real saucer and roundish aircraftI recently picked up a book on weird aircraft at the bargain bin. The book could use some serious editing, but it did go over a variety of interesting designs that are not often mentioned in aviation books - often with good reason. Many of these I have also seen around the web, particularly since I'm fascinated with designs that didn't go anywhere. There was also a comment on one of my blogs about a real saucer that I decided to follow up on (the comment is on the wrong page somehow as it should really be part of the "Saucerfull" post, but anyway.) It is an interesting story, but nevertheless not that unique in aviation history, that is the idea of a flying disk. It is also an idea that predates the classic flying saucer story from 1947.
The more I prepared this post, the bigger it got, so I'm going to break this into separate parts to make it easier to digest (particularly for me).
What is a round wing?There is some variation into what may be considered a round wing. One could say that it is of a circular wing planform (looking from top down) or a flat ring like (circular) wing planform. Disk wings are also described as low aspect ratio wings, meaning that the width of the wing (the chord) is large when compared to the wing's length. The surprising benefit of this type of arrangement is that it provides a considerable amount of lift at low speeds and high angle of attack (the angle of the wings with respect to the airflow). As a result these aircraft could fly at very low speeds and were attractive designs in the era pre-dating helicopters.
Another type of round shaped wing comes from annular wing design. In this case the wing is encircles the fuselage. It is sometimes flattened out and made boxier for a shape that resembles a stretched box kite. This general design is also referred to as a closed wing design.
A variation of round shaped flying machines is perhaps closer to what we would think of as a flying saucer. In a sense, these are wingless, because while the shape is generally considered to generate a certain amount of lift in flight, the main aspect of the shape is to house primary lifting devices that operate symmetrically. The more traditional lift devices make use of exhaust jets or ducted fans of some sort to redirect a mass of air directly downwards to counteract gravity. A more sophisticated method makes use of the Coanda effect to create an area of low pressure over the surface to lift the craft. More esoteric methods described are sometimes more whimsical than practical, such as electromagnetic levitation. One practical method that has been investigated is the usage of the shape as an energy receiver in the form of microwave or laser energy which can then be used or focused to superheat air at the base of the disc to generate thrust.
Flying Pans and Pancakes
The prototypical flying saucer?
The advent of actual flying machines did not initially discourage inventors from trying unique and imaginative variations on flying machines. This was due in part to the availability of the resources in lightweight materials and powerplants that finally made these plans viable. There was also a lack of specific knowledge of aerodynamics that might have been used to better analyze these aircraft. It has also been noted that the Wright brother's aggressive protection of their patents did encourage investors to find "different" ways of flying. Louis Bleriot and Gabriel Voisin for instance working in Europe had very sketchy information about the Wright's success (in fact many in Europe doubted they had really flown at all). They chose an annular design for their biplane creating a sturdy structure for their floatplane. In the end, the design did not work and after some modification both designers went their separate, but ultimately successful, ways.
The J.G.A. Kitchen, G. T. Richards, and Cedric Lee designed aircraft that used a circular wing planform. Initially Kitchen created a circular biplane which was refined with Richard's help. Disagreement between the designers resulted in subsequent work being developed by Richards with Lee. The Richard Lee Monoplane went through various versions (1,2,3) from 1912 up to 1914. The final version crashed with Lee at the controls, who managed to escape with minor injuries, but the aircraft was a total wreck.
Stephen Nemeth's, another "Umbrella Plane" built in 1934, mounted a circular wing above a standard fuselage looking like some of over-sized parasol and hence the name. It could take off and land in very short spaces due to that low aspect ratio wing. The circular wing was also only 15 feet in diameter making it easy to store in a hanger "not much larger than the ordinary garage" as the Modern Mechanics of June 1934 noted.
|The Nemeth "Umbrella Plane" of 1934. If you can find newsreels of it, it flies surprisingly like a gyrocopter|
All these aircraft show remarkable STOL flight characteristics and unique flying characteristics such as maneuvering at slow speeds. In fact newsreels of the craft show them taking off with very little space and practically dropping straight down for landings with rolls of only a few feet. The claim that it could take off and land from your own backyard does not look far fetched.
World War IIThe U.S. Navy has a strong interest in aircraft that could easily take off and land in short spaces. They considered a design proposed by Charles H. Zimmerman from Chance-Vought. Zimmerman reportedly visited the Arup Company and investigated using the combined effect of the disk-like wing with air blown at high speed from the propellers to enhance lift. Test models of the design were shown to rise practically vertically with good control. Moreover, the design could potentially have fighter-like performance. The prototype V-173 was flown several times and showed much promise. The fighter prototype was the Chance-Vought XF5U-1. It's development was protracted and not completed by the end of the war. After the war it was undergoing engine tests prior to flight tests when the program was canceled. It was a victim of the jet age, as most cutting edge propeller designs were at the end of World War II.
When talking about World War II saucer aircraft, some mention must be made of Nazi projects. It is true that several strange and unusual aircraft designs were produced by German aircraft designers during the war. It is also true that even stranger, futuristic designs were still on the drawing boards (or actually just left there) at the war's end. They had developed rocket and jet technology to the limits of engineering capacities at the time and in many ways were considerably more advanced than what the Allies had developed by that time. Even so, the stories of highly advanced "flying saucer" designs based on advanced electromagnetic devices or supersonic turbines have to be taken with a relatively large sized grain of salt.
One of the few documented German "saucers" was fairly conventional and along the lines of Arup and Zimmerman. The Sack AS-6, had a truly circular planform. It was powered by a small engine and in that form would have been limited to simple utility work such as reconnaissance or field courier. Beyond research into that type of wing, nothing really came from that design.
Other designs appear to be nothing more than quick paper studies: the Focke-Wulf Rochen that would have hidden a lift fan inside it's teardrop shaped lifting body fuselage, and the Heinkel Wespe and Lerche II designs which were tail-sitters with annular wings. It is doubtful that there was any way these technologically advanced craft could go much beyond theoretical work at the time. After the war much of this information fell into Allied hands, and truth be told, many of these designs proved impractical even with the huge military research budgets of the Cold War. As far as anything else, I really don't want to delve into some of the crazier rumors out there.
Next time: More human flying saucers...
Links and Resources for Part IThere is of course many areas on the Internet to find out about flying saucers, real and imaginary. Unfortunately, due to their connection to alien technology, they can be pretty odd. In the case of the speculative human saucers, they can also be rather odd (particularly the Nazi ones, which seem to be in a mythological class by themselves). If one can overlook some of the personal points of some of these sites one can find out quite a bit on the real designs. The grain of salt comes when looking at designs that may have been nothing more than a sketch on a piece of paper by people with little aeronautical expertise that's been lost for decades.
- Celtic Cowboy's Odd Wing Gallery - a collection of various images of odd aircraft including many round disk and annular/closed types. It is also fairly extensive with respect to the really early craft.
- Helicopter Designs at Aviastar.org - Contains various articles on helicopters, but for this subject the interesting one are the really early designs. You can browse the site to see other disk like shapes.
- Short article at Stanford on low aspect ratio wings and high angles of attack
- One of the few spots I found more detailed information about the Kitchen-Lee-Richards aircraft was located on this post and at the Russian site flyingmachines.org, the Kitchen biplane and the Lee-Richards monoplane.