The Pentagon’s Flying Saucer Problem

The weapon system that could have made the enemy die laughing

Air & Space Magazine

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The team members pressed on toward a first flight. At least they’d have some kind of milestone to crow about. Avrocar No. 2 was chosen for the attempt. To prevent another surprise, the team used three stout cables to tether the saucer to within a few feet of the ground.

In September 1959, company test pilot “Spud” Potocki climbed in and lifted off for the first time. He spent the next six weeks feeling the Avrocar out on its leashes. By early December he was ready to throw off the tethers.

From a hover, he eased the stick forward. Canopy off (in case a quick exit was called for) and engines screaming, the Avrocar skittered over the tarmac, blasting dust and debris, rocking and dipping like a Frisbee in slow motion. It was an amusing spectacle, but not terribly impressive. Potocki could not get the saucer to exceed 30 mph, or to rise up more than three feet into the air and off its ground cushion.

The team faced a Catch-22. Avro could ask for more funds to cover a pricy redesign of the ducts, which might help the saucer lift out of the ground effect. But the effort would be wasted if the company couldn’t demonstrate stability. And how could the engineers determine stability if they couldn’t get the vehicle out of ground effect?

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.

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