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Flying Disks: Humanity’s Attempts to Make Flying Saucers

Written by Collin Fifer

UFO against the sky. Free public domain CC0 photo https://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2022/03/the-aliens-are-coming/

Who built the Pyramids of Giza? How was Stonehenge made? Who were the Nazca Lines carved for? If you ask the right, or depending on your perspective, the wrong people, you’ll get the catch-all answer: aliens. 

Among conspiracy theories, those involving aliens have captured people’s imaginations like nothing else, and held on with a vice grip. Look up any historical mystery and you will find an extra-terrestrial theory attempting to connect the dots. Seriously, try it. 

Who shot JFK? Aliens. How has Queen Elizabeth lived so long? Lizard aliens. What caused the dinosaur extincti- Let me stop you there. Aliens. 

Extra-terrestrial conspiracies are so popular that a recent poll found 95% of Americans have heard or read about aliens with 57% believing they are real. The trail of bread crumbs that lead through these out-of-this-world stories always seem to start with sightings of UFOs. 

Nowadays, UFO sightings have become something of an American pastime. In fact, former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both claim to have seen UFOs. It’s only human nature to be captivated by something so mysterious. 

Another part of human nature: wanting it for ourselves. For almost as long as UFO mania has been around, people have attempted to recreate these flying disks. I mean, who wouldn’t want to soar through the universe as equals alongside our extra-terrestrial overlords? 

So, don your tinfoil hats and prepare to probe into the mysterious depths of UFOs. Today, we’re taking a look at the real-life stories of flying disks and our attempts to build flying saucers.

Background

The first sighting of a UFO was reported on Jun 24, 1947. Kenneth Arnold was flying his private plane by Mount Rainier in Washington when he witnessed nine disk-shaped objects. 

Upon landing, he reported it to the authorities. Of course, the press promptly caught wind of his sensational story. In interviews, Arnold claimed the objects were flying at a speed of several thousand miles per hour and moved like “saucers skipping on water.” The papers ran with it. The term “flying saucer” came to be. 

A flood of other sightings from around the country followed Arnold’s. Cold War fears were seeping through American society just as fast UFO mania. Often, the two were related. Fears sprouted up that the UFOs were advanced Soviet aircraft. I guess before aliens started taking blame for unexplained phenomena, the Soviets were the go-to scapegoat. 

The fears were so strong that the Air Force launched Project Sign in 1948 to investigate the possibilities. A slew of government inquiries followed, examining tens of thousands of sightings across the U.S. and consulting dozens of scientific experts. 

Initial conclusions ruled out the possibilities of the unidentified crafts posing national security threats. However, a theory mentioned in passing claimed the crafts could be from other worlds. The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis was born.

Perhaps the panels wanted to distract the public from top secret government projects. Or maybe they actually believed aliens were a possibility. But it’s interesting to look back and wonder if they knew the seed they were planting then would grow into one of the most vast, deep-rooted networks of conspiracies today. 

https://pixabay.com/images/id-6977596/

Despite reports from later government investigations claiming a vast majority of UFO sightings resulted from other causes—from bright planets to weather balloons to birds and searchlights—the public paranoia over alien presence in our world only grew. The more the government tried to explain it away, the more the public were convinced the CIA was covering something up. 

The Roswell Incident of 1947, infamous still today, was the backbone of many a UFO conspiracy. The mystery deals with the wreckage of a supposed crashed UFO and alien bodies recovered near Roswell, New Mexico. Initial news reports told of a flying disk, while others claimed it was just a downed weather balloon. 

The confusion and intrigue stretched on for decades until the late ‘90s. The Air Force released reports saying the flying disk theories as well as the weather balloon stories were fake. In reality, they claimed, the crash was that of a highly classified string of microphone-equipped balloons, and the alien bodies just the remains of test dummies. 

Deemed Project Mogul, the mission’s aim was to float the balloons over the Soviet Union and pick up audio intelligence. The cover stories, they claimed, were needed to protect the secret nature of this geopolitically delicate work. 

But this explanation satisfied only some people. Still today, the terms “Roswell” and “Area 51” stir even the most novice of conspiracy theorists into a frenzy. Even as recently as 2019, the belief in the extra-terrestrial explanation was enough to have two million people commit to “Storming Area 51,” even if only 150 people actually showed.  

UFO mania is alive and well today. But just because you’re seen as crazy doesn’t mean you’re not right, even if just a little. Although no government inquiry or independent investigation has turned up hard evidence of alien-controlled UFOs, there have been brief moments in history where flying disks were almost a reality; though very terrestrial humans controlled these flying saucers.

The AvroCar

It was 1952 and the Korean War was coming to a bloody stalemate. The U.S. military emerged from the conflict holding helicopter capabilities in high regard. Little did they know the Vietnam War would soon have everyone shouting to “get to da choppah!” 

Capable of carting soldiers and supplies behind enemy lines with no need for a runway, the helicopter made countless missions in the dense Vietnamese jungle a reality. But the helicopter had one big drawback: speed. 

Though the helicopter’s landing distance was short, the process of vertical touchdowns and takeoffs was a slow one. Slow air speed was another liability. Helicopters and the personnel they transported became extremely vulnerable to ground fire, especially with the increasingly frequent use of anti-aircraft weapons. The military wanted a craft that kept the maneuverability of a helicopter but added the speed of a jet fighter. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:National_Museum_of_the_U.S._Air_Force-Avro_Canada_VZ-9AV_Avrocar.jpg

Enter the Canucks. AvroCanada, a company based in the Mississauga area of Ontario, answered the U.S. government’s call with their proposition: the AvroCar. The craft started off as Project 1794 under the direction of renowned design engineer John Frost. 

Frost proposed a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle capable of speeds three times that of sound and altitude capabilities up to 100,000 feet (30,500 meters) or 19 miles (30.5 kilometers). That’s almost three times as high as the average cruising altitude of modern-day planes. The U.S. military’s interest in Frost’s craft was anything but cold.

Since the AvroCar would need 360-degree maneuverability, Frost proposed a disk-shaped design. His prototype would work by combining the Coanda and the Ground Effect. 

The Coanda Effect describes the tendency of air to stick to a convex surface, following the outward curve. The force of this air flow causes an equal and opposite reaction on the other side of the object, causing lift. This is the same principle that allows airplane wings to take to the sky. 

The ground effect is when a craft is close enough to a surface to create a high-pressure cushion of air between the two. This is that floating sensation you feel when a plane is about to touch down. 

Since the craft needed VTOL capabilities, it could not rely solely on forward motion to create the Coanda effect. Frost proposed a new engine design that would allow for high-pressure airflow downward to spur the ground effect. To keep the center of gravity as close to the middle as possible, the novel design surrounded the pilot in the cockpit with the fuel tanks. Talk about sitting in hot water, or jet fuel, I guess.

A series of shutters, control surfaces, and a turbo rotor in the middle would direct the flow of air through the aircraft and out the bottom. These same mechanisms could redirect the stream of air and move the craft in any direction. Well, theoretically, anyway. 

The engine design Frost proposed turned out to be too costly, so they swapped it for a series of turbo-jet engines mounted around the disc. And the test pilots let out a collective sigh of relief. 

When the pilots finally took the AvroCar into the air, the flying saucer fell well short of expectations. The ground effect that gave the disc its initial lift turned out to be the only lift the craft could attain. And the higher the craft went, the more unstable the air cushion beneath it would become. It was comparable to trying to balance on the top of a beach ball. 

Or, to put it another way, if you stand a hubcap at an angle on its side and let it fall, it will eventually settle flat on the ground, but not before a period of wobbling around in a circle. This hubcapping motion was how the AvroCar’s instability manifested. The test pilots were in a constant battle against the craft, jockeying the stick to maintain stability. 

Another shortcoming that plagued the AvroCar was its slow turning time. Making a ninety-degree rotation took five seconds. If the pilot were to make a turn the other way, opposite to the rotation of the turbo rotor, those ninety degrees would take eleven seconds. Not quite the maneuverability and speed the military was looking for. 

Frost and his team went back to work. They tweaked and tuned the craft, making adjustments like adding wings and a tail to counter the hubcapping instability. But that made it too similar to existing planes. The changes made to the AvroCar brought too little improvement at too late in the game. 

VTOL capability was already being developed using other means in different aircraft. After nearly ten years of trial, error, and more trial and $10 million in Pentagon investment, the U.S. military scrapped their high hopes for the AvroCar. They withdrew their funds, forcing the project to shutter. 

Nowadays, aircraft like the F35 have instantaneous computer correction to make its VTOL capabilities practical. With the advanced nature of modern-day technology, who knows what could happen if we revisited the AvroCar? 

https://flic.kr/p/2dxr8zf

Astro V Dynafan

Around the same time AvroCanada and the U.S. military were developing their flying disk, a company based on the opposite end of North America was working on theirs. In 1964, Houston-based Astro Kinetics revealed their Astro V Dynafan. Right from the start, the company had high hopes for their craft. According to the company’s press release, the Dynafan, “will conceivably bring a truly third dimension to commuter and personal transportation.” 

The design of the Dynafan was like nothing any company had attempted before. The finished prototype resembled a large metal parachute, with the pilot sitting in a seat dangling down from the canopy. 

Its function depended entirely on the Coanda effect. Remember that principle I mentioned before, the same one that allows wings to lift airplanes into the sky? Yeah, that one. But, instead of the curved surface being a wing, with the Dynafan, it was the entire structure of the craft. 

A fan on top would pull air in and down onto the dome’s curved surface. That airflow would create the high-pressure area beneath the dome, lifting the Dynafan off the ground. No need to use the ground effect to take off. 

The company likened the Dynafan’s functionality to that of a helicopter, only easier to control. And, unlike a helicopter, it had no complex moving parts or control systems. According to the company, “The simple operation of the Astro V Dynafan will permit anyone to operate this device with the same ease and facility of the automobile.” 

Astro Kinetics claimed their craft was ideal for military and industrial settings. In fact, the company claimed that a model scaled up to have a 100-foot wingspan (30.5 meters) would be capable of lifting 250,000 pounds (113,400 kilograms). 

But their bold statements did not end there. They plopped the cherry on top of their sweet reveal by concluding, “It again becomes obvious that the Astro V Dynafan is the solution to the current United States military dilemma concerning VTOL lifting and movement applications.” Bold words in the face of the Pentagon’s failed AvroCar investment. 

Despite all the grand statements, though, the Dynafan’s lifespan was short-lived. In 1964, pilots demonstrated the craft in an indoor hangar. Although it was a tethered flight, they successfully launched the craft nine times, hovering in the air for observers to gawk at. However, that seems to be the only time the craft took to the skies. Available records show that the Dynafan project seems to have simply petered out.  

The project’s end could be because of the craft’s lack of horizontal speed, or maybe it was investor fears stemming from the failure of the AvroCar, or it might have been the untimely death of Astro Kinetic’s founder and president, Fremont Burger, a week after the reveal. Whatever the reason, the Dynafan barely got off the ground before it was relegated to UFO history. 

Wingless Electromagnetic Air Vehicle

Though it uses different principles than the AvroCar and the Dynafan, the Wingless Electromagnetic Air Vehicle, or WEAV, can give us some insight into what these flying saucers could have been given access to modern technology. The brainchild of University of Florida Professor Subrata Ray, the WEAV was first introduced to the world in 2006. 

It works according to the theory of magnetohydrodynamics. Electrons covering the craft create an electrical current or field that converts the surrounding air to plasma. That plasma then creates the force that moves the disk by “pushing” against the neutral air around it. No wings, motors, or turbines needed.

In fact, the WEAV boasts a complete lack of any moving parts. No moving parts means fewer pieces that can malfunction, boosting the WEAV’s field reliability. It also makes it enticingly futuristic and the closest humans have gotten to the cool, sleek UFOs of sci-fi wet dreams.

However, the WEAV is still a ways away from being practical. The prototype only measures six inches, or 15 centimeters. But Professor Ray says he can easily scale it up. 

But with any plans for the future, there are always obstacles. The WEAV is powered by onboard batteries. To effectively scale up, the craft would need to remain light enough to gain the lift and maintain the speed that has impressed the likes of the U.S. military, while simultaneously housing batteries hefty enough to give it the juice it needs.

The WEAV is still under development today, keeping UFOlogists waiting with bated breath. If it is scaled up successfully, humanity’s first flying saucer could be used for navigation, surveillance, and transport. Though knowing the military, their investment could end up giving the WEAV more bang for its buck. 

Honorable Mentions

The concept of a pure flying saucer as we have imagined them in books and films has been hard to create in real life. But the idea behind flying disks has influenced many aircraft. Though separated from the realm of flying saucers by practical human needs and the limitations of physics, these aircraft have incorporated elements of the flying saucer enough to earn them an honorable mention.

Low Density Supersonic Decelerator

https://flic.kr/p/taFQxY

A fitting homage to the weather balloon trope in UFO conspiracies, NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator resembles a mix between a flying saucer and a parachute. When planning missions to our neighboring planets, NASA was met with the conundrum of slowing down payloads traveling at supersonic speeds in atmospheres much thinner than Earth’s. The traditional parachute would be useless if trying to land a several-thousand-pound craft on Mars. Enter the inflatable UFO. Only NASA has to be boring, so they named it the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator. 

Testing of the LDSD started in 2014 off the coast of Hawaii, no doubt spurring more UFO sightings nearby, with the goal of using the landing craft in future Mars missions. Now it will be earthlings gliding down to the surface of Mars in futuristic flying disks. How the tables have turned. 

https://flic.kr/p/uXENmq

Round-Wing Planes

The concept of flying disks has gone beyond the fascination of amateur UFOlogists and captured the more practical imaginations of aeronautical engineers. Round-wing planes are fundamentally different from the sleek design and function of the mythical UFO. 

Like normal planes, they have a body that houses the cockpit and fuel tanks and wings that jut out. They have not VTOL capabilities, instead requiring horizontal speed to take off. In fact, the only similarity they have with UFOs is the incorporation of the disc design. But they are worth a mention, if only to show the effect UFO mania has had. 

As far back as 1911, with the Lee Richards Annular Bi- and Monoplane, airplane designers and engineers have tried to incorporate circular designs into their crafts. 

Attempts at making round-wing planes range the spectrum of aeronautical endeavors; from serious military endeavors like the Vought XF5U-1, colloquially called the “Flying Pancake;” to private business ventures like the Nemeth Round-wing, referred to as the “Flying Umbrella;” to amateur projects purely for fun, like the David Rowe UFO, or “Useless Flying Object.”

But, however many disc-shaped wings soar through the air, the lives of the crafts they carry hardly ever make it full circle to meet the initial expectations of UFO enthusiasts and engineers alike. 

https://flic.kr/p/28YT37t

The hard truth is that existing wing technology soars above that of circular wings. And the closest we are to functional flying saucers is a six-inch prototype and interesting stories of past attempts. But it still is fun to allow our minds to be abducted with the possibilities, isn’t it?  

Sources

https://spyscape.com/article/10-crazy-jfk-conspiracies-ranked-including-one-that-might-even-be-true

https://www.cia.gov/static/105bd8290b90de13ee136fecc9fe863f/cia-role-study-UFOs.pdf

https://www.britannica.com/topic/unidentified-flying-object

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/tdm/ldsd/index.html

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/worlds-first-flying-saucer/

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080611135049.htm

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/the-pentagons-flying-saucer-problem-4613827/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ground_effect_(aerodynamics)

https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/aviation/a35538493/real-flying-saucer-history/

http://www.ufor.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Real-Flying-Saucers.pdf

https://www.sites.google.com/site/stingrayslistofrotorcraft/astro-kinetics-dynafan

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