Letter From Aviation History – May 2011

Flying Freaks

What is it about weird-looking aircraft that makes them endlessly fascinating? Sure, sleek, beautifully designed, high-performance airplanes never fail to impress, but there’s something about bizarre flying contraptions and ugly ducklings that captures our attention—call it “car-crash syndrome” (you just can’t look away).

This issue features more than its share of flying freaks, most notably our picks for “The World’s Ugliest Airplanes.” As author Stephan Wilkinson points out, some of them flew just fine, but due to a variety of circumstances—unusual missions, unrealistic specifications, the designer was plumb crazy—they all broke the ugly barrier. Certainly there was no shortage of candidates for a roundup like this. We passed over many aircraft worthy of inclusion, from Henri Mignet’s diminutive “Flying Flea” (see the July 2007 “Extremes”) to Andrei Tupolev’s gigantic ANT-20 Maxim Gorky.

The ANT-20, left off our list in favor of the even uglier Kalinin K-7, holds a special place in the annals of aviation monstrosities. First flown on May 19, 1934, it was at the time the world’s largest landplane, with a 206-foot wingspan and eight 900-hp engines. The Soviets built it as a flying propaganda purveyor, with cabins for radio broadcasting, leaflet printing and film developing; huge speakers for blasting Communist messages to the populace below; and a system of lights flashing party slogans at night. Unfortunately, a year after the Maxim Gorky first took to the air, the pilot of an escorting Polikarpov I-5 attempted a loop around the giant’s wing during a demonstration flight over Moscow. He crashed into the ANT-20, sending both airplanes plummeting together to the ground and killing 45, including himself.

Often strange aircraft designs result from overambitious military specifications or dreams of multipurpose capabilities, as was the case with the U.S. Navy’s VTOL prototypes described in Robert Guttman’s “Tail-sitters” (P. 40). As he suggests, experiments in the 1950s with vertically launched aircraft may have been influenced by the sci-fi pop culture of the period. Interestingly, in the early 1930s the Navy had sought a similar capability for ship-launched aircraft—in this case intended for fleet recon—that resulted in three unusual flying boat designs, all of which failed to live up to expectations (see “Extremes,” P. 14).

There are plenty more where these came from, and we’ll be covering additional aerial oddities in future issues. In the meantime, for more on the subject check out The World’s Strangest Aircraft, by Michael Taylor, or any of three different books by Jim Winchester, Bill Yenne and James Gilbert titled The World’s Worst Aircraft.

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