The Pentagon’s Flying Saucer Problem

The weapon system that could have made the enemy die laughing

Air & Space Magazine

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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.

But as the Avrocars sat around attracting little more than dust, their legacy lived on. In 1961, when the saucer was turning heads at Malton Airport, a 24-year-old named Paul Moller was working at Canada’s Defence Research Board; because he had a security clearance, “I was therefore able to study the Avrocar in detail,” he recalls. “I immediately committed to a design of my own.” At the University of California at Davis in 1966, he built and flew a one-seat VTOL saucer. Since then, he has produced ever-more-complex VTOL vehicles. Today, his company, Moller International, offers the Aerobot and the M400 Skycar, “the first and only feasible, personally affordable, personal VTOL vehicle,” in his words.

Moller says that he has learned important lessons from the Avrocar. He believes the design was doomed at least in part by the 90-degree turn the exhaust had to make—a turn that caused the exhaust to detach from the duct’s walls and therefore lose thrust. In his Skycar, no such turns are necessary. The propellers are in pods, which can be tilted almost vertically to achieve hover.

Avrocar No. 2 is now being restored for an indoor display at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia. The other one is at the National Air and Space Museum’s Garber facility in Suitland, Maryland, awaiting a rebuild and a nicer home at the Museum’s new complex in northern Virginia, currently under construction.

So despite test pilot Fred Drinkwater’s tales of disappointing performance, the Avrocars still made it into aviation’s halls of fame. And even if, in his estimation, the saucers didn’t really “fly,” he has to admit: “The whole idea sounded really great.”

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