Robert ‘Ludvigovich’ Bartini was an aristocratic Italian aircraft designer. The Italian Communist Party sent him to the USSR following the Fascist take-over of Italy. It was the intention of the ICP that he would bring modern Italian know-how to the Soviet aviation industry to aid its fight against fascism.
Being an aircraft designer was an extremely dangerous occupation in Stalin’s terror state, being a foreign aircraft designer even more perilous. In 1938 Bartini began an eight year prison sentence. Despite spending the Great Patriotic War imprisoned, he still did a huge amount of design work, notably on the Tu-2 bomber.
He became one of the most important Soviet aircraft designers, and survived to design the exceptionally unusual VVA-14, designed to counter the threat of Polaris missile submarines. This was a wing-in-ground-effect vehicle, a type of aircraft which sits on the recirculated air that forms beneath wings at extremely low altitudes. Capable of taking off from land or water, the vehicle could fly far faster than any boat at ultra low-level while carry large loads. It could also fly at higher altitudes as a true aeroplane.
In collaboration with the Beriev Design Bureau, Bartini planned to develop the prototype VVA-14 in three phases. The initial M1 was to be an aerodynamics and technology testbed. The M2 would have a battery of 12 Rybinsk RD-36-lift engines to give full VTOL capability, and was to be fitted with one of the world’s first fly-by-wire flight control systems. The M3 would integrate weapons (including depth charges, torpedos and anti-shipping missiles), the Burevestnik computerised anti-submarine warfare (ASW) system and the huge Bor-1 magnetic anomaly detector (MAD).
Bartini died in 1974 and with him the momentum that drove the project. Like all Ekranoplans, being neither fish nor fowl no one quite knew what to do it with it and the the VVA-14 never entered service.
8. THK-13 Flying Wing Glider ‘Turkish Spirit’ Not outright weird but definitely an unorthodox design for its time. From an unexpected country with little or no background in aircraft production, the THK-13 flying-wing glider deserves to be on this list. Met with harsh criticism for its looks, the THK-13 glider was a product of Turk Hava Kurumu (THK – Turkish Air Association), the aviation bureau of the young Turkish Republic. THK was established in 1925, only two years after the foundation of the republic itself. THK quickly set up a production facility and trained a core engineering team. It created several aircraft and glider programmes from the THK-1 to the THK-16. Of these, the THK-5 twin engine light transport and THK-15 two-seat trainer were the most successful. The THK-13 design work was started in 1943 by senior engineer Yavuz Kansu. The prototype made its maiden flight on 26 August 1948 in Ankara, and was towed into the air by a Focke-Wulf Fw 44. During take-off, the towing cable ripped off and the glider went out of control, resulting in an emergency landing in a nearby field. The pilot, Kadri Kavukcu, survived without a scratch — and the prototype was quickly repaired in the field. Several hours later, it made another ‘first flight’, again towed by the Fw 44. This time landing safely back at the THK airfield. Upon the news of the crash, local media jumped on the opportunity to blame THK for designing such a ‘weird’ aeroplane, speculating that such an unlikely looking machine was sure to fail. The project was shelved until the next year. A flight on 29 September 1949 ended in a more severe crash, seriously wounding the pilot and sealing the fate on this extraordinary glider. Arda Mevlutoglu
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7. Mississippi State University XV-11 MARVEL ‘The Marvel Superfan’Looking like it flew straight through a wind tunnel taking the fan with it, the first all-composite aircraft was the Mississippi State University XV-11 MARVEL. MARVEL is a backronym standing for ‘Mississippi Aerophysics Research Vehicle with Extended Latitude’. The aircraft was build to continue research for the military into boundary layer control, an effort that had been ongoing since the 1950s. Accordingly, the MARVEL employed a blower driven by the engine to draw suction through more than one million tiny holes in the wings and fuselage. The aircraft also spurned conventional flaps in favour of wing warping to deflect the wing trailing edges. So far, so weird, but the good people of the Department of Astrophysics and Aerospace Engineering at the Mississippi State University weren’t stopping there and added a ‘Pantobase’ or ‘rollerboot’ undercarriage with tandem wheels fitted within two sprung wooden pontoons which were intended to allow operations from rough surfaces or water. The ducted pusher propeller returned with little success in the Edgely Optica and RFB Fantrainer. 6. Tumonecotrans Bella 1, Russia (1994) ‘The Swamp Monster’ Our initial efforts revealed that Google video searches for ‘Trans Bella’, while distracting, are not helpful for researching rare Russian aircraft. What was useful however, was an ancient Russian website looking for investors in an utterly bizarre form of transportation. The story starts in the Soviet Union in 1989. Alexander Filimonov wanted to build an aircraft that could operate from the Arctic regions, Siberia and the far east of Russia without airfields. According to the aforementioned (and extremely quaint) website “70% of aircraft maintenance costs in this region relate to airfields”. On the other hand there are numerous natural flat airstrips in the form of lakes, rivers, marshes and fields. But even a rugged seaplane will struggle with marshes, and a helicopter or aeroplane needs special adaption (and a brave pilot) to operate from very thick snow or long grass. As the company’s website notes, “For example, the well-known Russian An-2 aircraft has three changeable takeoff and landing devices: wheel, ski and hydrofloat. The first two require runways.” So how could an aircraft deliver cargo or people to such austere locations? Filimonov believed the answer was to combine the advantages of a ‘wing-in-ground’ effect ekranoplan with a conventional aeroplane. The result is a strange hybrid, with a horizontal ducted helicopter-like fan, a hovercraft-like ‘skirted donut’ – and pusher engines and wings. Here was a machine that could make very short take-off from extreme terrain, and do it in terrible weather conditions. Funding was never found for this extremely unusual project.
Sadly, this site will pause operations if it does not hit its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.5. Vought V-173/VF5U ‘Zimmers Skimmer’ In the 1930s, Charles H. Zimmerman advocated the ‘discoidal’ aircraft with its pancake-shaped fuselage acting as a lifting surface. Zimmerman had worked on NACA’s (later renamed NASA) early wind tunnels. Influenced by the circular designs of Cloyd Snoder, and the less ridiculously named Steven Nemeth and Richard Johnson, he took this concept a step further. He wanted to produce a circular VTOL aircraft capable of flights at unbeatable speeds and altitudes, and able to hover like a helicopter. This proved overly ambitious with contemporary technology, but earned Zimmerman a prestigious NACA award. Zimmerman believed that discoidal aircraft could be capable of near vertical take-off and landings. They also promised excellent manoeuvrability, high speed and great structural strength. The concept, nicknamed the ‘Zimmer Skimmer’, was radical and unlikely- so Zimmerman set about demonstrating its veracity with a series of prototypes for both himself and the Vought company. The V-173 flew in 1942. Soon local residents were reporting UFOs, or they would have if the term existed (‘UFO’ was coined in 1953 by USAF). Nazi sympathiser and general douche Charles Lindbergh flew the type and found it handled extremely well, especially at low speed. Initial problems were centred more around the propulsion system, which used a complex geared system to route power to the propellers from the engine than the novel aerodynamic configuration. One propulsion failure led to a dramatic emergency landing on a beach. As the aircraft landed the pilot spotted two utterly bewildered bathers in the aircraft’s path. Full braking effect was applied, resulting in the aircraft somersaulting over on itself. Thanks to the aircraft’s immense strength both the pilot and aircraft emerged unscathed. Before the V-173 had flown, Zimmerman was working on its weaponised successor, the the Vought XF5U ‘Flying Flapjack’ for the US Navy. Fast, agile, well armed (six 50 cals or four 20mm cannon) and with a tiny take-off run the aircraft was a tantalising prospect as a carrier fighter. The geared propulsion system again proved troublesome, as did repeated operation of piston-engines and very large propellers at very high angles of attack. Development dragged on, and the war ended. By 1947 the XF5U-1 was finally ready to fly. But propellers were passé, Vought was busy moving to Dallas and the ‘Pancake’ had run out of luck. Unusually, the US Navy ordered the aircraft be reduced to scrap. Vought’s chief test pilot Boone Guyton had been looking forward to flying the aeroplane and was extremely upset by this wanton destruction. He tried to physically stop the wrecking crew, but failed. The wrecking ball took a long time to destroy the immensely tough airframe, but eventually succeeded. After it was destroyed and sent to the scrapheap someone remembered that the gearbox contained $6000 ($71,713 in 2020 dollars) worth of silver. Staff and security personnel scoured the scrapheap but failed to find the missing silver. Eventually the local scrap dealer who had hauled the wreckage away was caught by the FBI trying to sell the silver. But as Vought had made the mistake, it was found that the dealer’s actions were completely legal. The dealer kept the silver, and Vought was forced to pay back the Navy. 4. Antonov An-14SH ‘Clodhopper’ The West believes the world should adapt to support its aeroplanes, whereas the Soviet Union believed the aeroplane should adapt to function in the world as it is. The Antonov An-14 was a small tough short take-off and landing transport. It was intended to replace the hugely popular An-2 biplane, the only problem being that the An-2 was still doing its job very well and didn’t need replacing. Antonov gave up after only 332 units – which is small potatoes compared to the 18,000-plus An-2s. Perhaps as a punishment for lack of success, Antonov used the unlucky type for multiple experimental purposes. On January 22 1983, one aircraft took the sky with the indignity of a hovercraft undercarriage. This would have allowed the An-14Sh to have taken off or landed from any flat (or almost flat) surface from rivers to bumpy fields. The huge drag and reduction in range and payload were unacceptable and the project did not carry only beyond the prototype stage though the idea may have influenced the later Bella 1.
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