That Time the Air Force Tried to Build a Supersonic Flying Saucer

The U.S. Air Force is finally ready to pull back the curtain on the giant cache of alien technology they stole from the little green men at Area 51. Just kidding. No, but seriously, what was the government doing developing a supersonic flying saucer in...

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Oct 7 2012, 2:20pm

The U.S. Air Force is finally ready to pull back the curtain on the giant cache of alien technology they stole from the little green men at Area 51. Just kidding. No, but seriously, what was the government doing developing a supersonic flying saucer in the 1950s? Besides failing, that is.

Recently declassified documents show that old USAF came decently close to building a sci-fi fabulous spacecraft capable of flying from New York to Miami in just 24 minutes. Codenamed “Project 1794” — that’s the same year the the government commissioned the first six ships for the newly formed U.S. Navy, by the way — the flying saucer looked a lot like those spaceships on poles at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. There’s a small cockpit for a single pilot and, based on the schematics revealed in the declassified documents, not a whole lot of space for weapons. It was designed to take off and land vertically and frankly probably would’ve scared Russians to death at first sight.

Believe it or not, the flying saucer prototype came pretty close to taking to the skies. One newly published memo from Avro Aircraft Limited, the Canadian contractor hired to build the vehicle, is bursting with positive language about initial performance estimates. The contractors, as contractors do, bragged about the progress saying that "the present design will provide a much superior performance to that estimated at the start of contract negotiations.” The document boasts that the flying saucer would reach speeds “between Mach 3 and Mach 4, a ceiling of over 100,000 ft. and a maximum range with allowances of about 1,000 nautical miles.” Supersonic speeds in the stratosphere? Sounds like somebody we know, sponsored by Red Bull.

Leave it to the Canadians to be overly optimistic. Avro Aircraft did successfully build working prototypes, but we’re being a little bit generous with the use of the term “working.” In fact, the “turborotor” that they designed to take this thing the better part of the way to space had trouble gaining any altitude at all. Based on some leaked videos of the tests, it only managed to make it about 6-feet into the air. At a cost of $3,168,000 ($26.6 million in today’s money) it wasn’t that that expensive a failure. Which is something we can’t say about the current supersonic spaceships the military is trying to build. The latest failure cost taxpayers a handy $300 million. And it didn’t look nearly as cool.

Image via National Archives