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May 2, 2007 7:53 AM   Subscribe

What are your favourite failed flight inventions?

I'm doing research for an article on failed flight inventions, and I'm looking for stories of fantastic failures (specifically from the 19th and 20th centuries, but if it's really great and earlier, I might include mention of it).

Franz Reichelt, The Flying Tailor, was my inspiration, and while I've been reading up on albatross machines and early gliders, I'm most interested in flying apparatus which was meant to be worn (like Reichelt's overcoat).

So what are your favourite failed flying inventions/books about failed flying inventions? Help me include the most obscure, outlandish, and intrepid inventions (and consequently feel sad that they didn't work and I'm stuck with walking).
posted by Felicity Rilke to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Beechcraft Starship. Gorgeous airplane, one of the first all-composite hulls. They were all recalled and destroyed because of cracking in the fuselage. There are a few still flying, though, including the chase plane for Spaceship One. Alright, it's not really what you were looking for, but damn that plane's got looks.

I'm also fond of the Navy's early airship program. They had this plan for flying airbases with trapeze hooks that would lower and catch "landing" airplanes. Awesome idea, never got off the ground, so to speak.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:14 AM on May 2, 2007

Otto Lilienthal, Wile E Coyote.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:19 AM on May 2, 2007

Yogic Flying. Not an invention, as such, but still an attempt to get mankind into the air. The Natural Law Party promised yogic flying for all if they won a British general election. They didn't.

"The physical manifestations of the "Yogic Flying" vary with the practitioner... Stage One is generally associated with what would best be described as "hopping like a frog." Stage Two is flying through the air for a short time. Stage Three is complete mastery of the sky."
posted by humblepigeon at 8:26 AM on May 2, 2007

I don't know anything about flying, but I do remember seeing flight contraptions at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. You might find some interesting examples going through their collections, archives and/or online library.
posted by necessitas at 8:47 AM on May 2, 2007

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, about the Aereon Corp.'s somewhat successful attempts at the development of a hybrid lighter-than-air/fixed-wing cargo carrier.
posted by MarkAnd at 8:49 AM on May 2, 2007

Nuclear-powered bombers?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:49 AM on May 2, 2007

The deltoid pumpkin seed that John McPhee wrote around.
posted by jessamyn at 8:50 AM on May 2, 2007

I have always been a fan of Leonardo da Vinci's gliders, wings, ornithopters, and gyrocopters.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:06 AM on May 2, 2007

There used to be a Dutch tv show (c. 1997) where teams would compete to make a...'craft' may be the only generous term...which they would propel out over the water and hope to fly. No idea what it was called. Very funny to watch, especially as a non-Dutch-speaking American. Some of the contraptions were interesting, and not just ridiculous.
posted by cocoagirl at 9:16 AM on May 2, 2007

you could always poke around the flugtag (now famously sponsored by redbull) for interesting contraptions.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 10:04 AM on May 2, 2007

Dirigible aircraft carriers - notably, there didn't seem to be anything wrong with the aircraft carrier idea, just with the fact that zeppelins tended to crash and kill everyone on board.

Ornithopters have never really made it. Neither have nuclear aircraft, which would have flight times limited by maintenance rather than fuel.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:13 AM on May 2, 2007

Huh! Funny you should mention this—today, the trade department of the bookstore I work at is working on a big book return to Random House, and one of the books on that return is Michael Abrams' Birdmen, Batmen and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them and Perfected Them, a book that's all about failed attempts (along with a few semi-successful ones) at creating bird suits/bird wings/other human flight devices.

The above link is to the Amazon page for the paperback version of the book, which is due out May 22—you may want to do a little more searching to find the hardcover version, which is already out. (That's what we're returning today, in anticipation of the paperback's release.) The ISBN for that version is 1400054915.

Hope that helps!
posted by limeonaire at 10:49 AM on May 2, 2007

The Rocketman demo at last year's X-Prize Cup event in Las Cruces, NM, youtubed here, was one of the most profoundly disappointing things I've ever witnessed.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:00 PM on May 2, 2007

I can't remember his name but I learned about him on MeFi, the guy who attached balloons to his chair and floated for miles and miles. I think he lost his ballast or something and had no good way to control his altitude.
posted by vito90 at 12:55 PM on May 2, 2007

How about a vote for Howard Hughes "Spruce Goose"? I think it was the largest aircraft of its time and flew for just a couple of miles a few feet off the water before landing, taxying in and never flying again.

Must be nice to have more money than God.
posted by worker_bee at 1:31 PM on May 2, 2007

Whoops sorry, just read the OP more thoroughly. I don't believe the Spruce Goose could, in my wildest dreams, be worn.

posted by worker_bee at 1:33 PM on May 2, 2007

Vito90, was that Lawnchair Larry?
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 1:38 PM on May 2, 2007

Nazi Germany had all sorts of crazy programs, such as the Me 163.

During testing the jettisonable main landing gear arrangement proved to be a serious problem and caused many planes to be damaged at take-off when the wheels rebounded and crashed into the plane. Malfunctioning hydraulic dampers in the skid could lead to back injuries for the pilot on landing , and the airplane lacked steering or braking control during the landing run, leaving the pilot unable to avoid obstacles. Once on the ground, it had to be retrieved by a specialized tractor-like vehicle as the Komet was unpowered and lacked wheels at this point.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:31 PM on May 2, 2007

This guy is pretty cool.
posted by flabdablet at 6:19 PM on May 2, 2007

Samuel Langley's Aerodrome launched off the Potomac was the biggest let-down in aviation at the time, because the expectations were so high and the government had given him so much money, etc.
posted by np312 at 8:25 PM on May 2, 2007

Yup! That was him. Thanks. I LOVE that story.
posted by vito90 at 12:30 PM on May 3, 2007

cocoagirl, you're thinking of 'Te land, ter zee en in de lucht' ('On earth, at sea and in the sky'), which ran from 1971 up until now. You can watch some fragments on the TROS website by clicking 'Bekijk' ('View') and on Youtube and Google Video. There were different challenges: flying, completing a traject backwards, walking the furthest on water, racing in a bath tub and so on.

'Vlieg er eens uit' (more or less 'Fly away') was actually the original title of 'Te land, ter zee en in de lucht' and became later one of the different categories, in which contestants jumped off a high structure with a self-made device. The challenge was to stay airborne as long as possible, as you can see here.

Felicity Rilke: My explanation above is probably not that valuable for your article, but certainly has a high entertaiment value.
posted by lioness at 9:15 AM on May 4, 2007

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