Think of rubber aircraft, and the Goodyear blimp probably springs to mind. But Goodyear, the company best known for tires and rigid airships, was also responsible for a 1950s invention called the Inflatoplane. An inflatable rubber airplane, it was to rescue downed pilots (when folded, the aircraft was stored in a suitcase that could be dropped behind enemy lines). The idea wasn’t new; inventor Taylor McDaniel had filed a patent in 1930 for an inflatable glider, and the British magazine Flight reported in the mid-1930s that the Soviets were producing a rubberized glider with inflatable tubes that weighed only 93 pounds and could taxi on land or sea. Goodyear’s version, which weighed 225 pounds, had a wingspan of 22 feet, and could cruise at about 60 mph, almost as fast as a Piper J-3 Cub. The aircraft held 20 gallons of fuel, could carry a maximum weight of 240 pounds, and had a range of 390 miles. Testing was slow: “We’ve just been flying them gingerly around so far,” a Goodyear manager told the Washington Post in April 1959. When test pilot Richard Ulm took the Inflatoplane to 5,000 feet to test its dive capabilities, a wing buckled, requiring Ulm to abandon the craft. (A helicopter rescued him after he parachuted into a tree.)
By 1959, the Department of Defense came up with its own version of the idea: Project Wagmight. Unlike the Inflatoplane, the military craft would be unmanned. Planners envisioned inflatable rubber aircraft carrying large nuclear warheads 1,500 miles. The airplanes “could be launched from ships, surfaced submarines, or large Army trucks with a simple catapult or rocket-assisted launcher,” reported the Washington Post. Advocates claimed that a carrier could store 1,000 deflated aircraft, versus the standard 80 metal airplanes. Nonetheless, the project was dropped in the early 1960s.
Goodyear’s Inflatoplane also deflated. To take off, the vehicle needed a flat area not easily found in the jungles of Vietnam. “It was just one of those things that didn’t really have a practical application,” says Dik Daso, aeronautics curator with the National Air and Space Museum. “If you could drop this thing to a pilot, well, you could probably pick him up with a helicopter too.” After building 12 Inflatoplanes, Goodyear canceled the project in 1973.
But the aeronautical oddity best “consigned to a niche...where small children and junior birdmen might gawk [at it],” as one reporter wrote, inspired other uses. NASA developed one unmanned aerial vehicle, the I2000, with a viable inflatable wing. And the University of Kentucky’s BIG BLUE student project proved that inflatable vehicles are feasible for planetary research: In a craft traveling to Mars, space will be tight, so any probe that can reduce its size before deployment is extremely valuable.
In 1973, Goodyear donated an Inflatoplane to the National Air and Space Museum; it will eventually be displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.