The Air Force’s Flying Saucer Experiment

Military necessity and scientific ingenuity often go hand in hand. In the Cold War, the U.S. armed forces were constantly looking for unique ways to stay ahead of the Soviets. So the Air Force decided to build a flying saucer.

The VTOL project (aka Project 1794) report issued in 1956. Image: National Archives

The VTOL project (aka Project 1794) report issued in 1956.
Image: National Archives

Well, it wasn’t called a flying saucer. The vehicle was officially referred to as a vertical takeoff and landing craft (VTOL). But it sure looked like a flying saucer. The design, developed in coordination with Avro Aircraft of Ontario, Canada, took advantage of the latest in aerodynamic and aeronautical technology.

The point behind the VTOL project was to give the U.S. Air Force an aircraft that could take off vertically in the event of its air bases being wiped out in a Soviet nuclear attack. The VTOL would be able to travel at a ceiling of up to 100,000 feet and achieve a top speed exceeding Mach 4. This would be more than adequate to intercept any Soviet long range bomber.

Avro designer John Frost approached the Pentagon about developing the VTOL in the early 1950s, and by 1955 the U.S. government found the funding for the project.

From 1956 to 1961, design, building, and testing of the new flying wing took place in secret. And although the federal government fessed up to actually trying to build a flying saucer in 2012, they have yet to admit if that whole Area 51-Roswell business was just a cover story to hide the VTOL project.

The VTOL prototype. Image: National Aviation Museum

The VTOL prototype now lives in a museum.
Image: National Aviation Museum

Unfortunately, the VTOL project never lived up to expectations. Designers could never get the directional thrust to work properly. The best live test of the craft only took it a few feet off the ground at a speed of about 35 miles per hour.

The VTOL program was shelved in 1961, although the aerodynamic technology did make its way into future flight technology, inspiring the SR-71 Blackbird and the B-1 bomber. Still, it would have been cool if we had actually built a flying saucer.