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The Pentagon's Flying Saucer Problem

The weapon system that could have made the enemy die laughing

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UNDER A CLEAR BLUE SKY ON MAY 27, 1959, THE DOORS OF A HANGAR at Toronto’s Malton Airport parted with a rumble. As a crowd of reporters watched, fascinated, four men in white lab coats rolled out what looked like an enormous aluminum cough drop.

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Bearing both U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army markings, the waist-high disc was introduced to the press by Avro Canada, its builder, in a promotional film that showed it skimming a few feet above fields, grass and dirt swirling around it. “This unconventional circular vehicle, known as the Avrocar, rises vertically and travels over the ground on a cushion of air,” intoned the film’s narrator. “It will be able to operate without prepared bases and travel over terrain beyond the present capability of wheeled or tracked vehicles.”

Here, then, was a machine that promised to be as useful in the cold war as today’s unmanned aerial vehicles are in Afghanistan—and one based on the same idea: a platform that could either hover or fly, depending on the mission. The saucer was touted as capable of watching the enemy or darting off to intercept his aircraft and shoot it down.

But what the vehicle actually did could in no way be called “flying,” says Fred Drinkwater. He should know; he tried to fly it. “This one violated every aerodynamic stability and control concept imaginable,” the retired test pilot recalls.

Disappointing performance eventually doomed the military’s interest in the disc, but some of the technologies developed for the craft survive today in more successful vehicles. One such offspring, a small aerial robot called the Moller Aerobot, has been given the job of inspecting bridges for the California Department of Transportation.

And the public continues to be fascinated with both the concept and its history. Recently, Canadian librarian Bill Zuk delved into the details of the somewhat mysterious program, eventually authoring the exhaustive history Avrocar: Canada’s Flying Saucer. MidCanada Productions and Discovery Canada are preparing a documentary on the project—“Avrocar: Saucer Secrets from the Past”—for broadcast sometime this spring.

Conceived in 1952 by a talented British engineer named John Carver Meadows Frost, the concept was initially funded by Avro Canada. However, when development costs were projected to exceed $200 million (in 1952 dollars), the company backed off.

Then a customer with deep pockets stepped up: the U.S. Air Force. It was the middle of the cold war, and the Air Force liked Avro Canada’s vision of the saucer one day soaring to 100,000 feet, dashing off at 1,500 mph to bring down a Russian bomber, and returning to a vertical landing. In 1954 the service agreed to bankroll feasibility studies for variations on Frost’s design.

In response, Frost’s team, named the Special Projects Group, dreamed up a series of ever-wilder supersonic vertical-takeoff-and-landing flying saucers. But experiments with test models repeatedly failed. Avro needed to come up with something convincing, a proof-of-concept vehicle that would inspire the Air Force to increase funding.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army had emerged from the Korean War craving an all-purpose flying jeep, a platform that could hover and fly close to the ground for reconnaissance, light battlefield resupply, pursuit, or harassment. In 1957, Avro, learning of this interest, drew up a proposal and presented it to both the Army and the Air Force: The company would develop a saucer-shaped flying machine that could maneuver as precisely as a helicopter but, with its more streamlined shape, achieve much greater speeds.

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