Today, the worst airplanes ever built! The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The other evening I found a
neat book languishing on a bookstore bargain table
-- Bill Yenne's The World's Worst Aircraft.
This book ought to be a required text in our
engineering design courses. Yenne recounts this
century's great aviation failures.
Well, mostly this century's. He does mention
Icarus's waxen wings. But he isn't out to make fun
of the long epoch of experimentation. He's more
interested in pinpointing threads of foolishness
that repeatedly led to failure after we'd learned
to fly heavier-than-air machines. He shows us the
ill-conceived roles designers have imagined for
airplanes, airplane designs that've ignored
aerodynamic knowledge, airplanes made badly in so
Example: the Douglas
X-3 Stiletto was built in 1952. It's the
most streamlined airplane I've ever seen --
long and pointed with tiny stubby wings. It was
meant to "explore the supersonic flight
environment," but it didn't have enough power to
reach Mach 1.
The Russian supersonic passenger jet, the
came out of a mad scramble to
beat the Concorde into the air in 1968. Both
planes were struggling to find a market. Then a
Tupolev blew up over a French air show. After that
it was relegated to carrying freight across
Siberia. The Tupolev's second attempt to enter the
passenger market ended in another crash, and the
plane was doomed. In this case the design error was
simple haste. The finished Tupolev had so
many bugs it could no longer be set right.
The haste of wartime yields fine failures.
Who remembers all the perfectly frightful airplanes
made by Britain's Royal Aircraft Factory in the
early days of WW-I? The bad airplanes of WW-II are
another matter. I made balsa-wood models of those
machines without ever suspecting how bad some of
Take the Bell Airacobra. It was a
sleek-looking plane with lots of fire-power, but it
was under-powered and unstable. We made almost ten
thousand of them, then gave most of those to the
Russians for strafing German soldiers. I was
fascinated then (as I am now) by the Blohm-Voss-141
attack plane. It had a fuselage with one engine,
but the pilot rode in an off-center pod on the wing
alongside the fuselage. Half a tail reached
only to the far side of that unbalanced fuselage.
It was called the world's most asymmetric airplane.
It performed well enough, but no one could digest
its bizarre appearance.
The parade goes on: planes that couldn't take off,
planes that couldn't land, failed secret weapons,
and Howard Hughes's eight-engine
Spruce Goose with half again the wingspan
of a 747. The Goose was made, not of spruce, but of
birch. It might've been a fine plane, but we'll
never know. Hughes flew it thirty or so feet off
the water in 1948. Then he moth-balled it. What
else could he do? The day of large flying boats was
gone. No matter how good it was, it too now had to
join the ranks of The World's Worst
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds