The Pancake was killed by the jet engine. “It was always going to be slower than a jet, and the jet was just then coming into practical use,” says Lee. “The Navy could see that that was where development was going to go, as fast as the manufacturers and designers could make it happen.”
Lee believes the Pancake’s downfall was in part due to its peculiar design. While it “may be able to do one or two things really well, anybody who is going to design something for production or widespread use has to consider how practical it is overall,” he says. “Having those motors buried in the fuselage center section complicates getting to them to work on them. The practical aspect has to be considered when you ask, ‘Why isn’t that configuration used more?’ ”
NASA’s Al Bowers is more positive. “I think Zimmerman had something very specific in mind, and I’m sure he got laughed at. But I think he probably was onto something. And he probably found to a great extent what he was looking for. It’s actually a concept that deserves a little more study and research.”
Zimmerman, apparently, was unfazed by the program’s demise. He went on to win the Wright Brothers Medal from the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1956 for his design work on vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft.
Regular contributor Tim Wright is a writer and videographer based in Richmond, Virginia.