HomeMediaFeaturesDisplay

It's not science fiction - it's what we do every day

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. -- The grainy film showed a round ship floating out of a hangar. Its silver, aluminum exterior glinted in the sun as it hovered a few feet off the ground. As it glided over a pool of water, it kicked debris into the air and the glass canopies of the two cockpits were showered with grass and gravel as the saucer flew forward.

It may seem like a scene out of a classic Hollywood blockbuster, but the footage is documentation of testing held by the U.S. government on an experimental aircraft. This prototype, and fascinating piece of American history, sits on display at the National U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and another resides at U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Va., where plans are underway for its restoration.

With its round design standing at nearly five feet tall and 18 feet wide, the Avro Canada VZ-9AV Avrocar looks like something out of a 1950s science-fiction film. While it may look like something a martian would fly, the Avrocar is anything but science fiction.

Newly declassified documents concerning the Avrocar project were released Oct. 8, when they were published by the U.S. National Archives. Information about the aircraft has been available for years, but the documents now include diagrams that clearly demonstrate the scope of the project.

"The Avrocar was a good start, and the first step on a long road to discovering technology we use today," said Jeff Underwood, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force historian. "Although the project was never implemented, it serves a successful teaching tool."

The Avrocar was the result of a Canadian effort to develop a supersonic fighter-bomber, capable of vertical takeoff and landing, in the early 1950s. The Idea of what was to become the Avrocar was originally envisioned by British Aircraft designer, Jack Carver Meadows Frost.

A.V. Roe, a Canadian aircraft manufacturing company, along with Frost, based its design concept for the Avrocar on using the exhaust from turbojet engines to drive a circular rotor to produce thrust. By directing this thrust downward, it was believed the turbo-rotor could create a cushion of air under the aircraft, allowing it to float a few feet off the ground, as well as accelerate to high speeds at higher altitudes.

The Canadian government provided initial funding for the prototype, but dropped the project when it became too expensive. Avro offered the project to the U.S. government, and the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force took over testing in 1955. Although the project primarily remained in Canada, it was owned and controlled by the U.S. government.

While testing was a combined effort, both services were interested in the project for different reasons. The Army was interested in a durable and adaptable, all-terrain transport and reconnaissance aircraft. The Army Intended the Avrocar to replace their light observation craft and helicopters.

The Air Force was interested in the Avrocar's vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, which could potentially hover below enemy radar and accelerate to supersonic speed.

Research data originally indicated that a circular design may have satisfied both service's requirements. A.V. Roe built two, small test models to prove the concept.

"Engineers predicted the Avrocar would be able to reach heights of nearly 10,000 feet," said Marc Sammis, U.S. Army Transportation Museum curator. "Unfortunately, it was soon discovered that the aircraft wouldn't be able to perform as well as predicted."

Tests with scale models at Wright-Patterson AFB indicated the cushion of air under the Avrocar would become unstable when the aircraft passed roughly three feet off the ground. It was determined the aircraft was not incapable of reaching supersonic speeds, nor would the circular shape of the craft allow the Avrocar to have stealth capabilities. Although the aircraft did not meet the expectations of the Air Force, testing was continued to examine if a suitable model could be developed to fit the Army's needs.

The first prototype was sent to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Wind-tunnel tests proved the aircraft had insufficient control for high speed flight and was aerodynamically unstable. Although engineers attempted to perfect the design, the project was marred with problems.

"Once engineers would fix a problem, another would arise because of the modification," said Sammis.

The second Avrocar prototype underwent flight tests. Project engineers discovered once the craft rose beyond three feet above the ground, it displayed uncontrollable pitch and roll motions. The lack of computer technology and design flaws required pilots to control each engine separately, making it very difficult even for two pilots to properly control.

In December 1961, project leaders discovered the Avrocar could not reach a maximum speed higher than 35 mph. This, along with the crafts other shortcomings, led them to cancel testing permanently.

"This project was far ahead of its time," said Underwood. " It was a perfect concept, but the technology of the time wasn't advanced enough."

Although the testing was deemed a failure by the engineers and pilots who spearheaded the experimentation, the implications of the Avrocar's technology had far reaching results.

"Just because the tests weren't successful, doesn't mean it was a failure," said Underwood. "This experiment started engineers down a path to more innovative concepts based on what was learned."

Technology used by many aircraft, like the AV-8B Harrier II, V-22 Osprey and the F-22 Raptor, can trace its history back to the Avrocar.

Concepts gleaned from the Avrocar testing are still being implemented today with the development of the U.S. Marine's variant of the F-35 Lightning II. The F-35B will offer the capability to land vertically, making it the first aircraft in history to combine both stealth and vertical landing capabilities.

"Aircraft with capabilities to take-off and land vertically have their roots in this experiment," said Sammis. "These capabilities come from a long line of experimentation which started with the Avrocar."

Original content, including photos and video, found here.
USAF Comments Policy
If you wish to comment, use the text box below. AF reserves the right to modify this policy at any time.

This is a moderated forum. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, violate EEO policy, are offensive to other or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly "off topic", promote services or products, infringe copyright protected material, or contain any links that don't contribute to the discussion. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. The AF and the AF alone will make a determination as to which comments will be posted. Any references to commercial entities, products, services, or other non-governmental organizations or individuals that remain on the site are provided solely for the information of individuals using this page. These references are not intended to reflect the opinion of the AF, DoD, the United States, or its officers or employees concerning the significance, priority, or importance to be given the referenced entity, product, service, or organization. Such references are not an official or personal endorsement of any product, person, or service, and may not be quoted or reproduced for the purpose of stating or implying AF endorsement or approval of any product, person, or service.

Any comments that report criminal activity including: suicidal behaviour or sexual assault will be reported to appropriate authorities including OSI. This forum is not:

  • This forum is not to be used to report criminal activity. If you have information for law enforcement, please contact OSI or your local police agency.
  • Do not submit unsolicited proposals, or other business ideas or inquiries to this forum. This site is not to be used for contracting or commercial business.
  • This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

AF does not guarantee or warrant that any information posted by individuals on this forum is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. AF may not be able to verify, does not warrant or guarantee, and assumes no liability for anything posted on this website by any other person. AF does not endorse, support or otherwise promote any private or commercial entity or the information, products or services contained on those websites that may be reached through links on our website.

Members of the media are asked to send questions to the public affairs through their normal channels and to refrain from submitting questions here as comments. Reporter questions will not be posted. We recognize that the Web is a 24/7 medium, and your comments are welcome at any time. However, given the need to manage federal resources, moderating and posting of comments will occur during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Comments submitted after hours or on weekends will be read and posted as early as possible; in most cases, this means the next business day.

For the benefit of robust discussion, we ask that comments remain "on-topic." This means that comments will be posted only as it relates to the topic that is being discussed within the blog post. The views expressed on the site by non-federal commentators do not necessarily reflect the official views of the AF or the Federal Government.

To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information, such as name, Social Security number, DoD ID number, OSI Case number, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. If you do voluntarily include personally identifiable information in your comment, such as your name, that comment may or may not be posted on the page. If your comment is posted, your name will not be redacted or removed. In no circumstances will comments be posted that contain Social Security numbers, DoD ID numbers, OSI case numbers, addresses, email address or phone numbers. The default for the posting of comments is "anonymous", but if you opt not to, any information, including your login name, may be displayed on our site.

Thank you for taking the time to read this comment policy. We encourage your participation in our discussion and look forward to an active exchange of ideas.

Department of the Air Force does not exercise any responsibility or oversight of the content at external link destination.

The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the United States Department of Defense of linked web sites or the information, products, or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities such as military exchanges and morale, welfare and recreation sites, the United States Department of Defense does not exercise any editorial control over the information you may find at these locations. All links are provided consistent with the mission of this web site.