Before free-flight tests, the Avrocar was flown with tethers, seen here in front and behind the aircraft, for safety reasons. US Air Force photo.
In the early years of the Cold War, when military airfields were thought to be at especially high risk of Soviet missile attacks, Western governments began toying with the concept of underground airports. As the thinking went, subterranean bases would not only be better protected from enemy attacks but could also potentially serve as hangars and launch sites for future stealth aircraft. Of course, jets require a runway and open skies to take off, so the development of underground airports also necessitated the development of high-speed aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities.
An early effort to build such an aircraft was undertaken by the Canadians. In 1952, Ottawa contracted AV Roe (Avro) Aircraft Limited (later renamed Avro Canada) to develop a supersonic fighter-bomber capable of being launched without a runway. Called the Avro Canada VZ-9AV Avrocar, it had a clunky, disc-shaped design similar to what most people picture when they think of an “unidentified flying object.” At the time, flying saucers were a subject of great public interest, having become ubiquitous in the news and Hollywood films amid growing reports of UFO sightings across North America.
According to the National Museum of the Air Force, the Avrocar “used exhaust from turbojet engines to drive a circular ‘turborotor.’” The idea was that if the thrust produced by the turborotor was directed downward, it would push the aircraft up vertically and create a cushion of air upon which it could hover. While airborne, the turborotor could be repositioned so that the thrust was directed toward the rear, allowing the Avrocar to accelerate at high speeds and gain altitude like a jet fighter.
Avro Canada VZ-9AV Avrocar on display in the R&D gallery at the National Museum of the Air Force. US Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees.
On paper, the Avrocar seemed like a viable enough concept, but ultimately it proved too ambitious for the Canadians. Several years after the project was launched, as the costs grew exorbitant and the chance of a successful launch seemed less and less likely, Ottawa decided to terminate its contract with Avro.
Though the Canadian government no longer saw the VZ-9AV Avrocar as a worthy investment, Avro wasn’t ready to abandon the project just yet. So the manufacturer took the idea south of the border and pitched it to Uncle Sam, who just so happened to be in the market for a flying saucer. In 1958, the United States government granted Avro two contracts to produce experimental prototypes of the VZ-9AV — one for the Army and one for the Air Force.
The Army and Air Force each had different visions for what Avro’s flying saucer could and should be. The Army envisioned a highly dynamic aircraft that would be used primarily as a troop transport, one that could get boots on the ground incredibly quickly, regardless if the ground was too rugged or confined to be used as a runway. The Air Force, on the other hand, remained sold on Avro’s original concept — a reconnaissance aircraft that could hover in place below enemy radar and floor it up to Mach 4.
Avro produced the two prototypes. The Air Force’s underwent initial trials in 1959 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. It performed terribly. While the aircraft successfully hovered above the ground, the test pilot found it extremely difficult to control. Furthermore, the dust it kicked up got sucked into the engine, making it mechanically less efficient and therefore reducing the amount of time it could remain in the air.
The Air Force ultimately decided to shelve the project and gave its prototype to the Army. The Army took the two prototypes (its own and the Air Force’s) to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California for wind tunnel testing. Once again, the VZ-9AV Avrocar failed to pass muster. One of the prototypes was determined to be too aerodynamically unstable to be safely flown at high speeds. The other underwent flight tests “that validated the wind tunnel tests,” as it was found to be prone to “uncontrollable pitch and roll motions,” or what engineers called “hubcapping.”
Finally, in 1961, the Avrocar project was scrapped completely. Yet Washington remained committed to the concept of an aircraft that could take off and land without a runway and eventually managed to make it a reality. Today, the VZ-9AV Avrocar — and its nascent VTOL technology — is credited with paving the way for the development of the AV-8B Harrier II, V-22 Osprey, F-22 Raptor, and other VTOL-capable aircraft that are now used for a range of missions by the US military.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.