Abraham Lincoln noted that America will never be destroyed from the outside. Likewise the most serious threats to the US aircraft industry have always come from within, as demonstrated by the following inglorious parade of folly and nincompoopery. No nation has created as many aircraft types – or types that so comprehensively occupy the spectrum from superb to shit.
(You can see the 11 worst Soviet aircraft here
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10. Fisher P-75 Eagle
Long before the F-15 was even thought of, its illustrious namesake was the physical embodiment of audacious corporate fraud. The original Eagle was a poor aircraft built by General Motors with an ulterior motive that sucked in over $50 million in the middle of the most destructive war in history. Great things were expected of the Eagle, its designation P-75 had been specially allocated, P-73 and P-74 having been missed out, to allude to the French 75-mm gun of the Great war – regarded as a symbol of victory. The appellation “Eagle’ boasted of American greatness and nobility – and extensive media interest surrounded the programme. It was trumpeted as a ‘wonder plane’ before its first flight (less so afterwards) however the Eagle itself was a Frankenstein’s Monster of an interceptor, cobbled together out of bits of other, better, aircraft. The Eagle’s wings were taken from the P-40, its undercarriage from the F4U Corsair and the tail was appropriated from the SBD Dauntless. This approach appeared to yield distinct advantages: the aircraft could be built quickly as all these parts were already in production and (most attractively) the new fighter should be cheap as so much of it already existed. Unfortunately the design also employed the Allison (itself a division of General Motors) V-3420, a 24-cylinder engine that promised much but delivered considerably less, not least its rated horsepower and the Eagle’s performance was underwhelming. That aside, the XP-75 suffered from poor handling, dreadful spin characteristics and inadequate engine cooling. To further muddle an already problematic programme the Army decided it required not an interceptor but a long-range escort fighter. The XP-75 was redesigned, negating the advantage of using the pre-existing elements of its original design and emerged as a broadly acceptable aircraft in late 1944, by which time P-51s were proving spectacularly successful in the escort role rendering the Eagle superfluous, production terminated at the sixth airframe and that appeared to be that.
However all was not as it seemed, General Motors, who designed and built the P-75 at its Fisher Body Division, were tied up in a great many wartime programmes and believed they were overcommitted. When the USAAF came calling to try to get them to build B-29s, GM were desperate not to join in. With the knowledge that USAAF Materiel Command had the power to compel GM to build B-29s, they (allegedly) came up with an alternative and overriding commitment: development of the war-winning P-75! The USAAF bought it (in both senses) and GM never built a Single Superfortress. Looked on in this way, the P-75 was a resounding success.
9. Bell FM-1 Airacuda ‘Francis Ford Cuppola’
Bell were a new player on the scene in 1937 and their first aircraft design combined futuristic looks with unconventional features but its striking looks concealed a litany of flaws, questionable design choices and unsatisfactory performance in its designed roles. Firstly, the FM-1’s combined engine nacelle/gun positions gave the 37-mm weapons mounted therein a good field of fire for intercepting bomber formations but the pusher engines constantly overheated and the rear mounted propellors rendered death inevitable for any gunner who attempted to bail out. Actually firing the guns caused the gunner’s station to fill with choking smoke. Sensibly the aircraft was usually flown with the nacelles unoccupied. Accepting that the gunners were best left behind, their guns could be operated remotely from the cockpit but the aircraft was too draggy and slow to stand much chance of intercepting any modern bomber. Its manoeuvrability was also poor, had it ever faced contemporary fighters it would have been cut to pieces.
As if this wasn’t enough the Airacuda was expected to be able to perform ground-attack missions as well, its bombload of a mere 600lb would have been acceptable in 1918 but on the eve of the Second World War it was pathetic. To add considerable injury to insult the electrical system of the aircraft was extensive, complicated and unreliable. The FM-1 was the only aircraft to require a full-time supercharged auxiliary engine to power its own electrics as well as the fuel pumps. In the event of this engine failing (and it frequently did) the crew lost the use of the undercarriage, flaps and most importantly, the engines. Amazingly the FM-1 did enter limited operational service, equipping one squadron from 1938 to 1940. With only one recorded fatality whilst flying the Airacuda, the US Army got off surprisingly lightly.
8. Convair NB-36 ‘Atomic wait’
Of all the starkly insane ideas of the 1950s, the idea of putting an operating nuclear reactor in an aircraft remains particularly chilling. Yet both the Soviet Union and the USA did exactly that. The NB-36 ‘Crusader’ was a massive, terrifying ecological disaster waiting to happen every time it took to the sky. Yet take to the sky it did on no less than 47 occasions. Intended merely to test the feasibility of operating a nuclear reactor in flight prior to the development of a true atomic-powered aircraft, the NB-36 hauled a three megawatt reactor aloft. As a result of the shielding required to keep its crew alive, it remains by far the aircraft with the greatest amount of lead in its airframe: the rubber and lead-lined cockpit area alone weighed eleven tons.
A measure of its frightening potential can be gleaned from the fact that every time it flew it was accompanied by a team of support aircraft including a C-97 filled with a platoon of Marines who, in the event of a crash, or the reactor being jettisoned, were to parachute down, secure the site and attempt immediate clean-up, a task that would probably have cost them their lives. The NB-36 was also the only aircraft fitted with a hotline to the President’s office to be used in case of impending or actual disaster. This hotline was actually used when a smoke marker exploded in the reactor compartment (harmlessly as it turned out). Imagine taking that call.
As it turned out, the reactor was switched on for a total of 89 hours in flight and all was well, the NB-36 survived to be scrapped and the radioactive parts of the airframe were buried. However when one considers that 32 standard B-36s were written-off in accidents from 1949 to 1957 and even though this was a very good safety record for the time, it does make one wonder about the responsibility (or lack of it) of combining 1940s aeronautical technology with a potential Chernobyl.
7. Wright Flyer
Just because an aircraft is epoch-making doesn’t make it any good. The Wright Flyer was, according to the Smithsonian Institution, “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard” and they should know as they spent a great deal of time and money trying to prove that it wasn’t. However it should be pointed out that this sustained flight lasted an absolute maximum of 59 seconds, was more or less out of control, and covered a mere 852 feet. It flew four times on December 17 1903 but never again because the Flyer was essentially uncontrollable – and it should be noted that the Wright’s had plenty of experience flying gliders of the same configuration over long distances for years before they attempted powered flight. With the elevator mounted at the wrong end of the aircraft and too close to the centre of gravity, wing-warping rather than ailerons, and a rudder that was too small, the Flyer was dangerously unstable about all three axes, particularly longitudinally – in all four flights the Flyer undulated violently. Added to this was its inability to take off under its own power without the aid of a launching rail, visible in the famous photograph above (some deluded groups, almost exclusively Brazilian, believe this feature makes it ineligible as the world’s first aircraft and favour Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis, which flew without the need for a launch rail in 1906. The fact that Santos-Dumont was also Brazilian obviously having no bearing on their opinion whatsoever). The one undeniably decent aspect of its design was its engine, which the brothers designed themselves and was remarkably powerful for its size – though not nearly as good as the Manly-Balzer radial fitted to Langley’s Aerodrome (of which more later). The Wrights themselves held the Flyer in no great esteem, after storing it for nine years, Wilbur was asked what they intended to do with it and replied that they ‘would most likely burn it’. It was a dreadful, dangerous, flawed aircraft but it was the first.
6. Lockheed Martin VH-71 Kestrel ‘King Arthur Daly’
From a purely aeronautical point of view there is nothing wrong with the VH-71 Kestrel, yet it is not in service and as an example of eye-watering cost overruns it is without parallel, and that’s including the F-35 programme. It’s not even as if it were a new aircraft but instead a version of the AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin, a successful (-ish) medium-lift helicopter first flown in 1987 and serving in the air arms of 13 nations. Unit cost for the Merlin is approximately $21 million. In 2002 Lockheed Martin and AgustaWestland agreed to jointly develop and market the helicopter in the US. In 2005 this aircraft won the competition to replace the fleet of helicopters operated by the Marines as Presidential transport. By 2009, the contract had ballooned from its original allocation of $6.1Billion to over $11.2 billion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was dragged to go to Congress for a review of the project. The price continued happily rising. Some blame the rises on additional requested equipment that was not in the original brief, others point to improper lobbyist ties or erratic asset management. Its pretty hard to run a US military aircraft project so badly that it is killed (the A-12 being an notable exception) – the F-35 and C-5 proving the point, but this was a during a recession. Some pointed out, not entirely in jest, that this huge sum would do more to safeguard the President if it were spent on stabilising the economies of the world’s poorest countries.
President Obama doomed the Kestrel to cancellation with an injection of fiscal rationality in 2009 with the mild words “the helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me.” The nine Kestrels that had been built ended up being sold to Canada as spare parts for their AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant fleet (a somewhat more successful Merlin variant) for a mere $164 million, only $2.84 billion less than had already been inexplicably spent on their construction. Seven of these remain airworthy and there is the possibility that Canada may yet put these into service, an intriguing possibility for an aircraft that literally cost more than its weight in gold.
5. The Langley ‘Aerodrome’ ‘Pierpont Zero’
Samuel Pierpont Langley was a brilliant inventor, astronomer and scientist who happened to be secretary of the Smithsonian institution. He had built an excellent model aircraft that flew over a mile in 1901 and decided, reasonably, to scale it up and make the world’s first manned, powered flight. The Aerodrome was beautifully made and its 52hp radial had the best power-to-weight ratio of any engine, a record it held until 1919(!) – but it couldn’t fly. Twice the Aerodrome was flung off its catapult and plunged into the Potomac River. Nine days later the Wright brothers flew their aircraft into the history books, Langley died in 1906, and that should really have been that for the Aerodrome but fate decreed its story was not yet over.
The Wrights were as litigious as they were diligent and busily sued anyone who built a successful aircraft. In 1914 this included the talented pioneer Glenn Curtiss who came up with a brilliant scheme to flip the litigation on its head. If he could prove that the Aerodrome was capable of flight then the Wright’s patent would be invalid and he wasn’t going to let a little thing like the fact that it wasn’t stand in his way. After extensive modification including a new V-8 engine, approved by the Smithsonian who despised the Wrights for beating them into the air, Curtiss managed to coax it aloft for an awe-inspiring five seconds. Modifications removed, the Aerodrome was fraudulently placed on show as ‘the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight’. Thus began an ignoble tradition of deception, foul-play and skulduggery that has sustained the US aviation industry for well over a century.
4. Lockheed XFV-1 Salmon ‘Salmon fishing in no man’
The US military was full of bizarre ideas throughout the fifties, and luckily for us they were so prudence-crushingly rich that many of them actually got built. One of the craziest was the XFV-1 and its superior competitor the Convair XFY-1 ‘Pogo’, the last two airscrew-powered aircraft designed for the fighter role. Inspired, like all the best aviation ideas of the 1950s, by the flights of fantasy of the dying Third Reich (a regime not well known for rationality and good sense) the Pogo and Salmon were loosely derived from a Focke-Wulf design study for a fighter called the Triebflugel. This was to have a mid-mounted rotor/propellor powered by ramjets and the whole point of the idea was that it could take off vertically, ideal for a point-defence interceptor. The downside for the pilot of this and the subsequent Pogo and Salmon was that they had to land vertically – backwards – the pilot inching the aircraft back down onto to its tail. Nonetheless the US Navy couldn’t ignore the utility of a fighter aircraft that could be based on any ship large enough to mount a helipad, two prototypes were ordered, and a production contract was expected for whichever proved the better design. Quite apart from the landing problem, both programmes were condemned to employ the Allison XT-40 turboprop, a desultory engine with a disarming tendency to rip itself to pieces which was to prove the kiss of death to several other more conventional aircraft. Engine failure is not to be taken lightly in any aircraft but when one is hovering, nose vertical, a hundred or so feet above the ground, the prospect of that engine ceasing to work is a sobering one. Nevertheless Convair managed a few vertical take-offs and landings with their Pogo but the poor Salmon was not so lucky, a ton heavier than the Pogo, it was decided that it lacked necessary power for its weight to attempt either.
So, whilst Convair found their Pogo was possible
to land – though it was regarded as almost impossible even by their exceptional test pilot ‘Skeets’ Coleman – Lockheed had to fly their Salmon with an embarrassing fixed undercarriage more appropriate for a 1920s airliner than a state-of-the-art interceptor. Both programmes were cancelled at the request of their manufacturers in 1955 (which was a shame, imagine these two dogfighting MiG-17s over Vietnam). Nevertheless, to their possible credit, they did try, Lockheed’s great designer Kelly Johnson said of the Salmon “We practised landing on clouds, and we practised looking over our shoulders. We couldn’t tell how fast we were coming down, or when we would hit. We wrote the Navy: ‘We think it is inadvisable to land
the airplane.’ They came back with one paragraph that said ‘We agree.'”
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3. Rockwell XFV-12 ‘The Rockwell tart’
Generally, by the 1970s, it was a fairly safe bet that prototype fighter aircraft emerging from the world’s biggest, richest, and most successful aviation industry would be capable of flight. Yet in 1977 the Rockwell XFV-12 ingloriously proved that such assumptions are not always as safe as one might imagine. Rockwell’s XFV-12 certainly looked exciting with its canard layout and wingtip tail surfaces cunningly obscuring the parts that had been lifted off other, existing, aircraft – the intakes were from the F-4 and the whole cockpit and landing gear had been nicked from the Skyhawk. The concept of the XFV-12 was intriguing, a system known as a ‘thrust augmentor wing’ channelled engine exhaust downwards to enable vertical flight. Unfortunately someone at Rockwell had augmented the maths: thrust ‘augmentation’ from the system was 30% less than expected and as a result the engine was capable of lifting only three-quarters of the aircraft and the aircraft never flew. Despite this, tethered trials were carried out but with the obvious inability of the aircraft to support itself in the air the whole programme was terminated in 1981. After the expenditure of an estimated billion dollars on the programme the Navy stated that it had ‘learned all it could’ from the XFV-12 i.e. nothing.
2. De Lackner DH-4 Heli-Vector/HZ-1 Aero-cycle/YHO-2 ‘The Devil’s Hoverbike’
In the 1950s the US Army decided that only snow-eating Commies walk into battle and that having their infantrymen hover into action like elves or fairies on dangerous one-man helicopters was much more appropriate for the modern battlefield. The De Lackner DH-4 was the worst of the prospective designs to answer this idiotic request and one of the most terrifying machines ever to grace the sky. The true horror of this vehicle becomes clear when one studies a photograph of the DH-4 in flight and realises that the contra-rotating rotor blades are mounted approximately four inches under the feet of its luckless pilot, who was not provided with a seat and was compelled instead to balance on a tiny platform directly over the rotor hub. Standing above the whirling, unprotected rotors the infantryman of the future was required simply to lean in the direction he wished to go, much like a modern Segway. The difference being that a Segway is unlikely to chop one’s body into small pieces should you fall off. Eventually the realisation that the DH-4 was capable only of rendering the modern soldier a better target by raising him, terrified, a few feet above the ground, very noisily and at great expense, caused the programme’s demise. To be fair to the DH-4, it was at least relatively fast, being capable of a horrifying 75mph. This compared well to the rival Hiller Pawnee which at 16mph could be outrun by a not-particularly vigorously ridden bicycle.
1. Christmas Bullet ‘Unhappy Christmas’
Quite likely the Worst Aircraft Ever Built, and the only aircraft on this list that can be justifiably said to have been designed by a psychopath, the Christmas Bullet was a scandalous mockery of an aeroplane capable only of climbing high enough to guarantee the death of its pilot. Dr William Whitney Christmas MD was a seemingly respectable physician who had some unconventional ideas about aircraft development and coupled them with a plethora of lies both about his own achievements – he claimed for example to have invented the aileron – and his designs: he stated that he had received an offer of a million dollars to ‘take over’ Germany’s air force, and was swamped with orders for Bullets from Europe. Luckily for everyone, only one of his designs was to be built, less fortunately, and for no good reason, it was built twice. The Bullet was a stubbily purposeful looking aircraft and the US Army had gamely yet inexplicably (this was wartime and Armies seldom lend prototype military equipment to private individuals) loaned Christmas the prototype of its new Liberty L-6 engine, though they stated that they were to inspect the new aircraft before its first flight, a proviso Dr Christmas ignored.
On first inspection the Bullet appeared quite conventional until one noticed the paper-thin wing unbraced by struts or wires, that was free to flap (‘like a bird’) rather than remain rigid – this being Dr Christmas’s great idea.
Despite the fact that even a cursory glance at the wings makes it plain that they are going to fall off, Christmas managed to persuade an out-of-work pilot named Cuthbert Mills to take the Bullet up. In a twist of fate reminiscent of the worst kind of melodrama, the doomed Mills even invited his mother along to watch him fly the new fighter. The Bullet took off, the wings twisted and folded, and the Bullet crashed, killing its pilot. Undeterred, unrepentant and un-prosecuted Christmas built a new Bullet. It took off, the wings twisted and folded, and the Bullet crashed, killing its pilot. At least this time his mother wasn’t present. A mere month earlier this second Bullet had been on (static) display at the New York Air Show, where it was billed as the ‘safest, easiest controlled plane in the world’. Whilst showing no remorse for losing the lives of two pilots, nor apparently any concern about destroying the Army’s precious new L-6 engine against the their specific instructions, Christmas billed the Army $100,000 for his ‘revolutionary’ wing design. His gifts of persuasion must have been better than his skill as a designer for they duly paid up.
In a final ironic twist the chief designer for the Continental Aircraft company – who had actually built the Bullet for Dr Christmas – was one Vincent Burnelli, who dedicated the remainder of his working life to designing lifting-body aircraft of immense strength and safety. One cannot help but wonder if the horror of the Christmas Bullet inspired this brilliant designer to devote his considerable talent to making aviation safer.
William Christmas died in 1964 ‘with money in his pockets and blood on his hands’. As the historian Bill Yenne put it, ‘his was the kind of tale they used to write folk songs about
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