Flying saucers are the stuff of B-grade science fiction from the 50s and 60s. While many today believe that these alien craft actually exist, most remain skeptical. However, a saucer shaped design could have many features that would make it more useful than conventional craft. A saucer craft could easily slice through the air, and could turn on a dime in any direction. With those features in mind then, it might not seem so crazy to discover that the US Air Force funded an experimental design for such a craft in the late 1950s. Dubbed Project 1794, it was an ambitious plan to build a supersonic flying saucer that could shoot down Soviet bombers bent on wreaking destruction on the US homeland.
The Avrocar, a prototype
The mind behind the saucer was Jack Frost. Hired by Avro Canada in 1947, he worked on a supersonic aircraft called the Avro Arrow. Part of his work at Avro focused on what is known as the Coanda Effect, which is the tendency for airflow to “stick” to gently curved surfaces.
Frost believed this effect could be harnessed to create a cushion of air beneath a saucer-craft, allowing it to hover. This, he believed, could lead to a supersonic aircraft that could fly at Mach 4, soar 100,000 feet into the air, and have a range of 1,000 miles. His focus on on a flying saucer came from later falsified reports that the Nazis had experimented with their own flying saucers. He worried that the technology could have fallen into Soviet hands in the mad scramble to secure Nazi scientists and technology that followed the war.
To the US military, always looking to get a leg up over the Soviets, Frost’s saucer must have sounded like a dream come true. They were already looking for a supersonic aircraft, preferably one that could take off from anywhere, that could intercept Soviet bombers en route to the US mainland. A saucer with vertical take-off abilities would fit that bill nicely.
The project was conducted under the utmost secrecy at the Avro plant in Malton, Ontario. Fears of Soviet spying were widespread, and well founded. A soviet spy had been discovered attempting to obtain information about the Arrow program, although their name was never released.
Expectations for the program were high. It was, after all, the 1950s–everything seemed possible with the right technology. The reality was much more sobering. By November 1959, Avro had managed to scale down the original design for a 30,000lb craft to a 5680lb prototype. The prototype looked more like a giant aluminum cough drop than a flying saucer. The 18ft wide contraptions was powered by three engines, half as many as would be on the final version. Known as the Avrocar, it was tested between a pair of buildings on the Avro grounds by Wladyslaw “Spud” Potocki, who had received a British distinguished Flying Cross during World War II. Having tested the Avro Arrow, the veteran pilot was not strapped into the company’s strangest contraption to date.
Spud Potocki fired up the prototype’s engines for the first untethered test of the craft. Engine’s screaming, the aluminum craft lifted off the ground. A promising start, but as soon as it reached three feet the craft started to wobble uncontrollably. Potocki killed the engine and set the craft down.
Try as they might, the engineers at Avro could not overcome the instability inherent to the saucer design. They tried different shaped nozzles, spoilers, skirts, and vents. In frustration, they slapped a tail on it at one point, defeating the point of a flying saucer in the first place. None of it made any difference. The Avrocar never flew more than than three feet off the ground, topping out at a speed of 30 knots, a far cry from the Mach 4 Frost envisioned for his saucer-craft.
A Problem of Power
Despite its powerful engines, the Avrocar suffered a lack of power. The problem lay in how the air was pumped through the saucer. Air was forced through a system of ducts, resulting in a lot of friction that significantly restricted the power of the system. This problem would be resolved in an aircraft now famous for vertical take-offs: the British Harrier Jump Jet. The Harrier solved the problem simply by moving the aircraft’s exhaust nozzle.
One other concept that might have saved the Avrocar would have been to integrate flight control processors into the system. Modern aircraft rely on computers to make minute adjustments to nozzles and flight surfaces. Working in concert, pilots can use this assistance to fly machines that might be impossible to operate with only human hands. Strangely, such a system was developed for the Avro Arrow, but it was never considered for use with the Avrocar.
End of the Saucer Era
While the US military would fund and build many odd looking aircraft during the Cold War, it would never again fund a flying saucer prototype after the failure of the Avrocar. It pulled funding from the program in 1961, after investing about $3 million ($26 million in today’s dollars) into the project. Avro closed its doors a year later. The two prototypes resulting from the ill-fated project remain in government hands. One is in pieces at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. The second is on display in the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
The Avrocar might have been a non-starter, but failures have their place in the long march of technology. The mistakes made laid the groundwork for technology that would prove successful in other crafts. And while no on in the modern world zooms around in flying saucers, the Avrocar remains as a testament to an era when anything, no matter how ridiculous it might seem to the jaded 21st century, seemed possible.
Chandler, Graham. “The Pentagon’s Flying Saucer Problem.” AirSpaceMag.com. May 2003. Air & Space Magazine. May 16, 2014. http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/the-pentagons-flying-saucer-problem-4613827/?all
Pappalardo, Joe. Fecht, Sarah. “America’s Secret Saucer.” Popular Mechanics. February 2013, vol. 90 issue 2. p. 52-61
“Project 1794: Final Development Summary Report.” Avro Aircraft Limited. April 2, 1955 –May 31, 1956.
Onion, Rebecca. “The Government Tested a Flying Saucer in 1956. Here’s the Full Report.” Slate.com. July 11, 2013. Slate. May 16, 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/07/11/flying_saucer_the_full_report_on_a_government_commissioned_prototype.html