The Pentagon's Flying Saucer Problem
The weapon system that could have made the enemy die laughing
- By Graham Chandler
- Air & Space magazine, May 2003
U.S. Army Transportation Museum, Fort Eustis, Virginia
(Page 4 of 5)
The solution turned out to reside with NASA. The Air Force had the Avrocar brought to the agency’s Ames center in northern California for testing in the facility’s 40- by 80-foot wind tunnel. To see how stable the craft would be in free flight, NASA set it up on 12-foot legs, like a creature from The War of the Worlds, and equipped it with movement-sensing instruments.
The testers cranked up the wind to simulate airspeeds over 30 mph, and stability did in fact deteriorate. To see if a pilot could keep the craft level at such speeds, the engineers sent NASA test pilot Fred Drinkwater to Toronto to try flying the other Avrocar.
Today, relaxing on his deck in California and eyeing the hummingbirds among the hibiscus, Drinkwater recalls inheriting the flying saucer from his predecessor: “I met Spud, he briefed me, and within an hour I was flying —hate to use that word—first tethered, then a free flight.”
Drinkwater says the saucer wasn’t difficult to operate. “To lift off you just added full power. It hovered easily.” Then he tried to gather enough speed to escape the ground bubble. “Desmond Earl [Avro Canada’s chief aerodynamicist] insisted you could get out of ground effect by charging forward and suddenly pulling up,” he recalls. “But after repeated tries, I never could get it to do that. It just kept going like a wobbly saucer.”
I ask if the wobbling could have been caused by PIOs—pilot-induced oscillations—a phenomenon in which the pilot’s attempts to correct pitching motions actually increase their amplitude, rather than diminish them. Drinkwater laughs. “You couldn’t get it to PIO,” he says. “It wasn’t that responsive.”
Avro tried yet another angle: getting a pilot with no helicopter or VTOL familiarity—one who could approach the flying without bringing potentially counterproductive habits to bear. Avro test pilot Peter Cope strapped in and tried. Flying it four times, he had no more luck than the previous two pilots. “It was a very dirty thing to fly,” he recalls today from his Bellevue, Washington home. “The canopy would ice over, so I had to fly it with an open cockpit.” As the saucer flew past at 30 mph, it churned up ice and water from puddles on the tarmac, drenching Cope in spray. “You could hardly see anything,” he says.
His attempts did, however, succeed in entertaining the passengers of Viscount turboprops passing by on Malton Airport’s nearby taxiways. “I could see all their faces pressed to the windows,” he says.
Over the course of 10 years, Frost’s dream had shrunk from a saucer tearing off at 1,500 mph and 100,000 feet to one chugging along at 30 mph and three feet. In December 1961, having spent a total of $10 million on the program, the Pentagon canceled it.