The 10 coolest cancelled airliners
Every now and again, I get a pang of guilt for celebrating military aircraft and ignoring the world of commercial aviation. But as soon as I start reading about modern airliners I start remembering important tasks that need doing, like buying biros or cleaning my shoes. However, not all airliners are dull – the following would have been extremely beautiful, brutish or decadent- or in some cases all three.
Unfortunately they were all destined to be discarded in the overhead locker of history.
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Choosing number 10 was particularly hard: one of the proposed Northrop flying-wings as seen in the picture above? Barnes Wallis’ supersonic swing-wing Swallow? The Ye-155 business jet variant based on the MiG-25? The Horten 70-ton transport? All would have been deserving aircraft but we could only have ten. I hope you enjoy our selection.
10. Norman Bel Geddes Air Liner 4 (1929) ‘Steam-punk dream-liner’
Drawing inspiration from the Dornier X, the ‘4 would have been a flying ocean liner- complete with a crew of 155 to serve the 451 passengers. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes and Otto Kröller, this swept flying-wing design would have offered lucky passengers viewing verandas, baths, private suites and a stylish bar. Sadly nobody was crazy, or forward-looking, enough to build this wonderful machine and it remained firmly on the drawing board.
9. Tupolev Tu-244 ‘The lost Red hope’
Rarely discussed is the fact that from 1979-1993 Tupolev were working on a ‘super Concordski’, faster than Concorde and capable of carrying an additional 200 passengers. Building on experience with the Tu-144 and Tu-160, the Tu-244 would have been a remarkable aircraft to showcase the Soviet Union’s aeronautical prowess. Unfortunately for the project, the Soviet Union ceased to be from 1991, and Russia’s situation in the 1990s made the completion of the aircraft impossible. It was reported that it would have been powered by a hydrogen-powered variant of the engine that powered the Tu-160 and ‘144LL but this seems unlikely.
8. Fairey Rotodyne (1957) ‘The screaming commuter’
Streaking from city centre to city centre with a top speed twice that of helicopters of the time, the Rotodyne, could have been a major transport innovation. As the world’s first vertical take-off airliner it could have revolutionised air travel, removing the need for remote airports for everything but long haul journeys.
The concept was extremely innovative: for takeoff and landing, the rotor was driven by tip-mounted jet engines. The air for the tip-jets wasn’t bled from the engines. The engines were connected with clutches to axial compressors in the rear of the nacelles, which had flush inlets above the wing, and the compressors fed the rotor. The turboprop-powered propellers on the wings provided thrust for horizontal flight while the rotor autorotated (‘autorotation’ is when rotors turn around while unpowered, but in flight). Thanks to its tip-mounted jets, the Rotodyne was exceptionally noisy, an undesirable trait in a city centre airliner, and was cancelled. Debate still rages about the degree to which the Rotodyne’s noise levels could have been reduced.
7. Bristol Brabazon ‘The Filton Stilton’
On 4 November 1909, John-Moore Brabazon put a small pig in a bin tied to a wing-strut of his aeroplane, to prove that pigs could fly. He later headed the wartime Brabazon Committee, an effort to ensure Britain had a strong start in the postwar airliner industry. Though well-meaning, not all of the predictions of the committee would prove accurate. It imagined that transatlantic flights would largely be for exceptionally wealthy people requiring a (very) comfortable journey. The Brabazon would have made today’s A380-business class passengers green with envy: each passenger in luxury class would have had 270 ft³ (8 m³) of room, and access to a sleeping berth, a dining room, a 37-seat cinema, a promenade and a bar. This titan was to have a wingspan greater than that of the biggest 747 and was ten metres longer than a B-1B bomber. One demolished village later (levelled to make room for the runway) the vast Brabazon flew in 1949. It was a brilliant piece of engineering, with superb handling and an exceptionally smooth ride- however, an aircraft of this size would have to wait for the arrival of the high bypass turbofan engine (rather than eight radial engines driving four sets of contra-rotating propellers) to make economical sense.
6. Tupolev Tu-344 ‘Twisted Backfire-starter’
If you want to make an impression, travel to business meetings in a supersonic swing-wing converted soviet bomber – and make the owners of Gulfstreams look like a bunch of total arseholes. Hard to think of a way to burn more fuel for only 8-12 passengers, but this isn’t about being sensible.
Based as it was on the Tu-22M, it’s hard to imagine that the ‘334 would have offered similar ride quality and cabin noise levels to a Dassault Falcon, but who gives a shit- this aircraft would have been incredible.
5. Saunders-Roe Princess ‘Maritime people’s Princess’
Imagine an airline that put the magic realist writer Italo Calvino in charge of procurement and you can be sure they would have had a large fleet of Princesses. The aircraft was vast, gorgeous and could land on water. The Princess was much more advanced than the Brabazon: the entire flight control system was electro-hydraulic, with the power units inside the pressure hull, and it had integral fuel tanks. Sadly by 1952 (when it first flew) the days of flying boats were over. With innovative rocket fighters, jet-powered seaplane fighters and giant flying boats, Saunder-Roe’s remarkable designs were out of step with the rest of the world. The Princess was the last true aircraft they built, though they did make some hovercraft.
4. Republic RC-2 ‘Sequel to the Arsey One’
In many ways, the XF-12 Rainbow was the most advanced piston-engined aircraft ever built, and it was also one the most beautiful. Disobeying comedians’ rule of threes- the Rainbow ‘flew on all fours’: four engines, 400 mph cruise, 4,000 mile range, at 40,000 feet. It was the only four-engined piston-engined aircraft to achieve 450mph. Intended to serve in the high altitude reconnaissance role, Republic also envisioned an airliner variant. The RC-2, as it became known, would have been five feet longer than the spyplane and would have carried 46 passengers in style and comfort. But the radial-engined Rainbow first flew in ’46, in a world about to turn to turboprops and jet engines for high performance aircraft. USAF refused to buy the Rainbow, deciding instead to use the plentiful B-29s and ‘50s until the new generation jet B-47 entered service. Without military backing, the project died.
3. Tupolev Tu-404 ‘Aeroflot flapjack’
As the Soviet Union chaotically disintegrated in 1991, designers at Tupolev escaped into happy fantasies of incredibly advanced concepts. The Tu-404 studies for an ultra-large long-range airliner included a flying-wing powered by six giant turboprops capable of carrying 1214 passengers over 13,000 kms. Tupolev remains interested in unconventional designs lacking a traditional tubular fuselage, as can be seen by the illustrations of the proposed PAK DA bomber, which may or may not enter service in the 2020s.
2. Avro Atlantic ‘Are you a Vul-can or Vul-can’t?’
There’s nothing that warms the cockles of a British aviation enthusiast more than the Avro Vulcan. Sure, it was designed to indiscriminately vaporise millions of Soviet civilians, but what a great noise! Exceptionally advanced for its time, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that an airliner variant was proposed.
The 1952 Avro Atlantic would have taken around 100 passengers over the Atlantic at Mach 0.9 (a smidgeon faster than modern airliners).The airliner lost out to a rival bid from Vickers, the V-1000. Delta wings for subsonic airliners would prove a non-starter.
- Convair 58-9 SST ‘Hustler’s Unconvention’
The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first operational bomber capable of Mach 2, so why not create an enlarged version (hypothetically) suitable for taking 52 brave passengers on holiday at Mach 2.4? General Dynamics promised they would be able to get a prototype into the air within three years of an order being placed- because everyone wants such an ambitious project to be rushed. An even more alarming idea can be seen below, this is a five person external pod- an ‘intermediate’ step toward the final supersonic airliner, and presumably toward five heart attacks.
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The Rotodyne could do amazing things for reducing road traffic and replacing outdated and expensive rail corridors. I would take one from CT to NYC or Boston any day. Rotor mounted jet engines? Yes please. Amazing and so cool to see fly. Easy to see how this could have been inspiration for the V-22 Osprey. By the way, is it possible to supersize a V-22 to airliner capacity?
Rotodyne was in many ways more advanced that the V-22. It was a hybrid helicopter as it could take off and land vertically, and then in flight transition to a gyrocopter mode for higher speed and more efficient cruise.
They also massively improved the noise problem in the later stages of the project. Great book on it by David Gibbings https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0076M4SYE/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
What about the Boeing Sonic Cruiser??!?!?!?
In this list there should be also place for the Ricci R.4, transatlantic concept from 1918, with four wings, eight engines and 5000 HP total, with sleeping rooms and restaurant for the passengers.
(Sorry for the Italian in the link)
What about the NASA HSCT?
That’s a nice one too.
The various Soviet big fighter as bizjet concepts all seem to speak to Soviet fantasies of the West, a world of infinite plutocracy where of course! a Foxbat with four seats would sell like ice cream in Moscow.
Tellingly, even Donald Trump isn’t sold. (That said, I do think a bit better of him for buying an overpowerful, handsome 757 than some annoying Lear or boring ACJ/BBJ/whatever. Classy!)
What sort of powerplants did the Bel Geddes flying wing use? 25 engines or something?? Promenade deck?? Now thats style daaahling. 🙂
The big Horten had to be in there, memorably. See also the “naranjero” fruit-freighter the IA.38. Reimar Horten, Argentina, 1960 Hampered by poor engines and politics and the “Not Invented Here” that gets such planes.
Speaking of that, the Burnelli patents: US 201851, 1965. US 199510, 1963.
Also not to be missed US 2194596 Henter, 1940
US 20100012776 Sunstar IM 2008
No mention of the XB-70 SST concepts? And if you think riding in a pod under a B-58 is exciting, how about stuffing four VIPs into the missile bay of an F-106? 🙂
What about the Avro Jetliner?
Boeing 754 or the Husky Intl version of the sort of thing, would have been interesting. Boeing info (US D245157 S) said that with same engines and fuel load as MD-80, it carries almost double the payload, or almost double the range onto 2/3 the runway length.
Husky patent sheets (US3869102) say it might only be pressurized in the center of the body, still leaving 4+ lanes 80′ for cargo containers outboard. Patent suggested that it can be extended sideways, increasing payload. Every 2 or 3 lanes added spanloading requires another engine, but range and payload go up, and L/D actually improves, while CG and rotation point and landing gear height don’t change.
Numerically, they probably resemble the BWB which Boeing is reluctant to build, except they have a definite tail, so no question of stability.
Passenger version of the HP Victor?
For the MiG biz jet, they should have made it out of a MiG-31, when the MiG-25 went to top speed it would eat it’s own engines.