Five Planes That Were Determined To Kill Their Pilots

Illustration for article titled Five Planes That Were Determined To Kill Their Pilots

Both the early and the not-so-early days of aviation were filled with inventors, visionaries, and dreamers. Men who dreamed of changing the world, with machines that seemed to ache at their very (sometimes nuclear) cores for the deaths of their pilots and the people that created them.

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These planes were often made as a creative solution to a very real problem, but often the technology hadn't been invented yet, nor the morality to realize the larger problems they created. Nevertheless, the path to greatness is littered with good ideas and very, very, very bad ones.

The Phillips Multiplane

Illustration for article titled Five Planes That Were Determined To Kill Their Pilots

Good Idea: One wing works, and two wings works even better than that, so why not all the wings? Powered by a 22 HP engine, this thing actually managed a 500-foot flight in 1907.

Bad Idea: Looking somewhere between a cross of a venetian blind and a strainer, it was a tad heavy. Flying for anything more than the requisite 500-foot flight (which was tethered, by the way) could've made for a very nice pile of kindling and pilot when it hit the ground.

Photo Credit: Mississippi State University

Convair NB-36

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Good Idea: Nuclear power provides clean and virtually limitless energy, with the latter attribute proving especially important for strategic bombers. Back in the Cold War, Strategic Air Command planes of the United States Air Force would fly in circles around the Arctic, waiting for their doomsday orders to bomb the Soviet Union. With a nuclear reactor on board, they could potentially stay on station for weeks or even months.

That was the idea behind the Convair NB-36, which was built out of the damaged remains of a normal B-36 bomber that had been damaged by a tornado. Yeah, that's the universal symbol for radiation on the tail.

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Most of the crew were taken out and replaced with a real, functioning nuclear reactor. The reactor itself wasn't hooked up to the engines for the initial tests, but plans were in the works for this thing to fly on splitting atoms alone.

Bad Idea: It seems like at least some people knew this was a bad idea at the time, as evidenced by the massive precautions undertaken the second anyone got the bright idea to stick a nuclear reactor on a plane, according to the Virtual Aviation Museum, which sometimes happen to fall out of the sky:

The consequences of an NB-36H crash were so frightening that several support planes, including one filled with a team of paratroopers, followed the aircraft on every flight. Should the NB-36H crash or have to jettison its reactor, they would jump and secure the site and help with clean-up. A hotline to the president's office was set up in case of disaster.

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Photo credit: The University of Washington

Republic XF-84H "Thunderscreech"

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Good Idea: Jet engines were still in their infancy in 1955 when the Thunderscreech was created, and still had a number of teething problems. The US Navy still wanted a plane that could match a jet's speed, however, and decided to mate a propeller to a turbine engine. The idea worked so well that the Thunderscreech held the record for the fastest single-engine propeller plane up until 1989.

Bad Idea: It was called the "Thunderscreech" for a reason. The propeller blades spun so fast that they broke the sound barrier, essentially generating a continuous sonic boom and a resulting visible shockwave. It was so loud that it could be heard from over 25 miles away, and was known to induce headaches, nausea, and even a seizure in the ground crew. The thing was also essentially unflyable, too. Ten out of its 11 flights ended in forced landings.

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Photo credit: US Air Force

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

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Good Idea: The Mitsubishi Zero was born from the same loins as Lotus: simplify, and add lightness. Weighing less than a pound of feathers (and yet somehow more than a pound of gold), the Zero was a feared fighter aircraft in the early days of World War II. It became famous from that Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor, and for no other reasons.

Bad Idea: The "Kamikaze" theory of filling up a Zero with explosives and flying it into the enemy was actually just a natural extension of the plane's design. Made out of paper-thin and brittle alloys, with no armor plating and no self-sealing fuel tanks, the Zero was basically a flying bomb already. Just a few hits from the guns in a Hellcat would make the Zero explode, cooking its pilot alive before the wreckage even hit the ground.

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Convair XFY-1 "Pogo"

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Good Idea: The Pogo was created as a Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) fighter, and as such could operate from places without an airfield or the crowded deck of a ship. The concept is still in use today, with the V-22 Osprey and, to a lesser extent, the Harrier Jump Jet. Able to get in and out of sticky situations, the XFY-1 could've been a true gamechanger.

Bad Idea: To land the plane the pilot had to look over his shoulder, like you would if you were backing your car into the garage. Only thing is, when you back your car into the garage you don't have two contra-rotating whirling blades of death right above your head and you're not, you know, in flight. Only the most experienced pilots could fly it, and even then it seemed like it was trying to kill them.

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Photo credit: US Navy

Got any more planes you think would try to kill their pilots if given the chance? Post them below in the comments!

DISCUSSION

SalsaShark
SalsaShark

The Corsair. An amazing, beautiful, stupendously capable machine that was so difficult/terrifying to land on a carrier that when introduced it was initially passed from the Navy to the Marine Corps, which at the time operated exclusively from land bases.

The Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine was an 18-cylinder monster that displaced forty-six LITERS and generated anywhere from 2,000 to 2,800 HP, depending on the variant. This rip-snorting beast was wrapped in the tightest, lightest cowl that could possibly fit around it. Way back behind that enormous grunt sat the cockpit up high, and mounted way down low were a pair of thin wings, cranked to give the already-lengthy landing gear struts a few extra inches, all so that the gargantuan 13' prop at the front had enough room to spin without gouging ruts in the carrier deck.

Those wings were big, but the engine power was bigger, and that's the source of the landing problems. They gave the Corsair an exceedingly narrow airspeed window in which to land on a carrier. Get too slow on the final approach and the right wing would stall out from under you, rolling the plane over to the right just when it was approaching the stern - low, slow and out of options, the plane would land on its back in the drink. And if you found yourself in that situation with just enough time to think you might firewall the throttle, at which point the massive torque from the engine would have just the opposite effect, but the same result: the port wing stalled, the plane rolled over, and that's all she wrote.

As if that weren't enough, the cowl flaps, when opened to cool the engine bay during low-speed operation (such as during a landing) had an unfortunate tendency to spray hot oil all over the windscreen. And if you wrestled through all of that and still managed to get the plane onto the deck, it was even odds that those long hydraulic landing gear struts would bounce you right back up in the air again.

Eventually all the issues were worked out and the Corsair had an outstanding service record in WWII and Korea, but the cost to get it dialed in was steep, and paid right up front.