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Ryan Aeronautical’s Vertiplane used thrust directed downward by huge wide-span flaps to achieve near-vertical takeoff.

Nearly 60 years ago I was a member of the Ryan Aeronautical team that created a little-known short take- off and landing aircraft, the VZ-3 Model 92 Vertiplane, for the U.S. Army. It was an era when any conceivable idea found funding and every aircraft manufacturer was building some type of concept aircraft, when a small group of talented and versatile employees could take on any task. Those days are long gone.

Developed in response to the Army’s need for a medium-speed liaison plane that could operate without runways, the Vertiplane was an updated version of theYO-51 Dragonfly, the firm’s 1940s venture into STOL aircraft. It joined an illustrious line of Ryan aircraft that included the M-1 in the 1920s, the ST in the ’30s, the FR-1Fireball and Navion in the ’40s and theX-13 Vertijet in the ’50s.

I arrived at Ryan in 1957. My wife wanted to get out of our small town in Ohio, so early that year I sent a résumé to every aircraft company west of the Mississippi. I received only two responses: a form letter from Sandia, in New Mexico, saying“no interest” and another from Ryan Aeronautical offering me a job if I could pass a physical. We put the house on the market, loaded up our three children and headed for San Diego.

At the time I already had nine years’ experience working on aircraft. After graduating from the Air Force Aircraft and Engine Mechanics School at Sheppard AFB in Texas in 1952, I’d done maintenance on T-6s, T-33s and C-47s, and also served as a crew chief and flight chief on F-51s andF-84Es and -Fs. I started work at Ryan in April, on the last day the Convair Sea Dart was flown in San Diego Bay. We watched the demonstration from an upstairs room during new employee indoctrination. Also on that day, Ryan was celebrating the first full transition of the X-13 from vertical to horizontal flight at Edwards AFB.

Dozens of union production employees were being laid off on the day I started,making me wonder what I was getting myself into. But I was to work in the nonunion engineering department, a completely different world from the production line. Positions in the engineering development shop were much-sought-after jobs,and I was very fortunate to have been hired through the mail, sight unseen.

The Vertiplane was a super-lightweight aircraft—the engineers nicknamed it the “Reynolds Wrap Special.” There were only about a dozen men on the project, all seasoned aircraft builders, the best in the business, and eager to teach me. Even though I had nine years on the flight line, I had never constructed an airplane other than models as a kid. My first job on the Vertiplane was manufacturing the wing with the help of Ray Palmer, an experienced aircraft builder.Other groups of two built the other components. I was surprised to see that, except for being made of aluminum, it was in many ways like building a model airplane.

My next job was to fashion the large air deflectors located on the tip of each wing.My partner, Ollie Peterson, used the rivet gun while I “bucked” the rivets. The aluminum skin was so thin that the rivets could easily be punched through the aluminum. That’s why the same two men always worked together on any particular component. You had to know just what your partner was going to do and how much pressure he was going to use with the rivet gun or the bucking bar.

The blueprints called for the last several rows of rivets to be “blind” rivets. Not as strong as bucked rivets, these were installed from the outside with a special gun. Ollie and I figured out a way of “closing out” the panels with regular rivets by making special slim bucking bars, each one tailor-made for a rivet location. The design engineer,draftsman and managers couldn’t figure out how we did it, and we didn’t tell them.

These end plates served as structural supports for the large flaps, and confined the propeller slipstream to the flaps for better STOL efficiency. When extended, the flaps directed the propeller’s slipstream downward to provide vertical lift for takeoff.

Everything about the Vertiplane was lightweight. I don’t recall any structural part using anything thicker than .012 or.016 aluminum. Even the approximately7-foot-long engine tailpipe weighed only 14.6 pounds. The firewall was made from .002-inch type 321 stainless steel, spot-welded to a corrugated sheet of the same material. It had an exhaust deflection device in the tail that aided with flight control.

The Vertiplane was 27 feet 8 inches long, with a wingspan of 23 feet 5 inches and a gross weight of just 2,600 pounds. It was powered by a single 1,000-hp Lycoming T53-L-1 gas turbine engine turning two three-bladed wood propellers mounted on wing pods. It could take off and land in two plane lengths.

The wingtips were made from balsa wood, which meant that every visitor tended to push his or her thumbnail into the balsa, just because it was easy to do. We had to fabricate new tips on a regular basis to keep the wings presentable.

Feeling a little playful one day, I sawed the head off a very large bolt and glued it onto the fuselage, then screwed a likewise large hex head nut on the bolt threads and glued it to the opposite side of the fuselage.It looked as though a bolt went all the way through the fuselage. Everyone invariably walked around the plane several times until they caught on. When company founder T. Claude Ryan, who regularly visited the shop, saw it, I thought I would surely be fired, but he just laughed and never said a word about it.

After two years of testing at the Ryan facility, the Vertiplane was moved to the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, in California, for additional tests. On January21, 1959, Peter Girard piloted it on its first flight there. During test flights at Moffett, Girard flew the Vertiplane at speeds as lowas 15 knots and as fast as 110 knots, and descended at rates of 1,600 feet a minute at idle power settings. Hovering was never attempted.

Following a crash on February 13 during its 13th flight at Moffett, the Vertiplane was returned to Ryan for repairs. As usual,things were really hopping at the factory,and there were very few people with experience on the aircraft available to work on it, or even any place to put it. It was finally relegated to one corner of a hangar in the south end of Ryan’s facility, and I was tasked with rebuilding its wing. A stress engineer was assigned to monitor, inspect and accept all my work. After a few days of making the trip to the far end of the plant to look at my repairs, he finally told me to just go ahead and repair it and let him know when I was finished. “You know as much about it as I,” he commented, “and you don’t need me.”

There was another crash in March 1959 and yet another in February 1960, when the NASA pilot ejected at 5,000 feet and the aircraft was virtually destroyed. During that rebuild, significant modifications were made. A lightweight Martin Baker ejection seat was installed, the enclosed cockpit became on open cockpit and the fuselage was extended by a foot forward of the wing. The landing gear was also modified and strengthened. As originally built, it was a tail-sitter; the modifications allowed it to rest on tricycle gear or use the original tail-down position.

After the rebuild was finished, the modified Vertiplane went back to NASA. Testing continuing into late 1962. The aircraft is now located at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Ala.


Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.