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October 12, 2016

Avrocar: The Story of America's Top Secret Flying Saucer from the 1950s

In September 2012, Michael Rhodes, a technician at the National Declassification Center (NDC) in College Park, Md., donned white cotton gloves, entered a climate-controlled room, and opened a cardboard file box. It was time for the report inside—"Project 1794 Final Development Summary Report 2 April—30 May 1956"—to become public.

Rhodes's job is to read such documents, catalog them, and make them available to historians, journalists, and the curious. The paper was crisp, like new. Rhodes began to read.

He soon realized that the file box contained highly unusual material. "As I was processing the collection, I glimpsed this weird red flying-disc icon in the corners," Rhodes says. Inside the box was a trove of oddities: cutaway schematics of disc-shaped aircraft, graphs showing drag and thrust performance at more than Mach 3, black-and-white photos of Frisbee shapes in supersonic wind tunnels. The icon was a flying saucer on a red arrow—the insignia of a little-known and strange sideshow in aeronautical design. Rhodes was leafing through the lost records of a U.S. military flying saucer program.

The Avrocar was the brainchild of maverick aircraft designer Jack Frost. Frost worked with the British aeronautical firm de Havilland during World War II. He pioneered research into supersonic travel and other advanced concepts. In 1947, he signed on with the Canadian-based aviation company Avro Canada, eventually forming a close-knit team of renegade researchers who called themselves the Special Projects Group (SPG). The alone is enough to send conspiracy buffs into a tizzy. Adding to the organization’s mystery is the fact that it worked on highly experimental aircraft designs.

Frost and his colleagues in the SPG envisioned a new way of channeling engine thrust, one that would make jet-powered vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft practical. In the 1950s, both Canadian and American officials considered nuclear war with the Soviets a real possibility. In a scenario in which most airfields would be destroyed by atomic bombs, military planners regarded the development of VTOL aircraft a top priority.

"Jack" Frost demonstrates the Coandă effect. Pressurized air flows out of the end of the red tube, and then over the top of the metal disk. The Coandă effect makes the air "stick" to the disk, bending down at the edges to flow vertically. This airflow supports the disk in the air.

Frost’s team felt that the answer to developing such airplanes lay in taking advantage of the Coanda effect, in which pressurized air can flow over the top of a disk-shaped craft, causing it to hover above the ground. The researchers also believed that such a craft would be stable at both sub and supersonic speeds. This would give her the nation in possession of these vehicles unquestioned technical superiority over its enemies.

Despite the potential rewards of this research, Canadian defense authorities passed on Frost’s design in favor of other projects. Never one to give up easy, the designer captured the attention of US officials when they visited Avro Canada’s facilities in 1953.

Intrigued by his proposal, the U.S. Air Force took over funding of the Special Projects Group, awarding the clandestine organization a $750,000 grant in 1955.Avro Canada followed up with a $2.5 million investment of its own the following year.

With substantial funds invested in the effort, officials pressured Frost and his people to produce results. In 1957, they offered the USAF a proof-of-concept engine. Unfortunately, testing of the prototype didn’t go quite as planned. The engine leaked oil and caused fires.

To avoid their own deaths, team members built a reinforced steel booth in which to test the device. Despite these safeguards, their prototype was simply too powerful to control. Funders began to lose interest when Frost proposed building a scaled-back model that eventually became the Avrocar.

The Avrocar is as close to building a flying saucer as terrestrial scientists have ever come. It consists of a disk 18 feet in diameter and 3 ½ feet thick. At its center is a rotor powered by three Continental J69-T-9 jet engines. Designed for a crew of two, it was built so that the pilot can operate the craft with a single control stick.

Frost, who was an excellent salesman, promised his invention would travel hundreds of miles per hour, reach an altitude of 10,000 feet, and have a range of nearly 1,000 miles. As with most of his predictions, however, reality came up short. Aerodynamic forces caused the craft to pitch back and forth wildly during ascent. The Special Projects Group tried multiple ways to correct this problem, but to no avail.

Avrocar 59-4975 after modifications, was tested without the canopies and incorporating the perimeter "focusing" ring c. 1961.

Tests showed that the heat was so oppressive that all instruments were baked brown after only a few flights.

In its final version, the Avrocar’s actual top speed was 35 miles an hour, its range was closer to 80 miles, and it could rise about three feet above ground before it destabilized. Efforts to rescue the project continued until late 1961, when the government finally pulled the plug.

Despite its dismal record, the Avrocar is a helluva sight. In fact, you can see one of the two prototypes on public display at the Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. If you didn’t know better, you might swear that you were looking at a real spacecraft. And that, dear readers, is the truth about the military’s flying saucer project – or so say the official sources.

Avro VZ-9-AV Avrocar at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility, National Air and Space Museum c.1984.

Avrocar at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Avrocar at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

(via Popular Mechanics and Bold Ride)


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