Odds and Ends from my brain and interests. Given that it is meant to be much like my old cartoon strip at the Lowell Connector, I suppose it is eponymous (I also like that it does make an oxymoron of sorts)

If there is to be anything here of any regularity it should be about sci-fi, computers, technology, and scale modeling with origami thrown in on the side (at least not infrequently). Oh, I would also expect some cartooning too

Monday, December 22, 2014

Flying 'Round: real saucers (sort of) - Part 1

A look at some real saucer and roundish aircraft

I recently picked up a book on weird aircraft at the bargain bin. The book could use some serious editing, but it did go over a variety of interesting designs that are not often mentioned in aviation books - often with good reason. Many of these I have also seen around the web, particularly since I'm fascinated with designs that didn't go anywhere. There was also a comment on one of my blogs about a real saucer that I decided to follow up on (the comment is on the wrong page somehow as it should really be part of the "Saucerfull" post, but anyway.) It is an interesting story, but nevertheless not that unique in aviation history, that is the idea of a flying disk. It is also an idea that predates the classic flying saucer story from 1947.

The more I prepared this post, the bigger it got, so I'm going to break this into separate parts to make it easier to digest (particularly for me).

What is a round wing?

There is some variation into what may be considered a round wing. One could say that it is of a circular wing planform (looking from top down) or a flat ring like (circular) wing planform. Disk wings are also described as low aspect ratio wings, meaning that the width of the wing (the chord) is large when compared to the wing's length. The surprising benefit of this type of arrangement is that it provides a considerable amount of lift at low speeds and high angle of attack (the angle of the wings with respect to the airflow). As a result these aircraft could fly at very low speeds and were attractive designs in the era pre-dating helicopters.
     Another type of round shaped wing comes from annular wing design. In this case the wing is encircles the fuselage. It is sometimes flattened out and made boxier for a shape that resembles a stretched box kite. This general design is also referred to as a closed wing design.
     A variation of round shaped flying machines is perhaps closer to what we would think of as a flying saucer. In a sense, these are wingless, because while the shape is generally considered to generate a certain amount of lift in flight, the main aspect of the shape is to house primary lifting devices that operate symmetrically. The more traditional lift devices make use of exhaust jets or ducted fans of some sort to redirect a mass of air directly downwards to counteract gravity. A more sophisticated method makes use of the Coanda effect to create an area of low pressure over the surface to lift the craft. More esoteric methods described are sometimes more whimsical than practical, such as electromagnetic levitation. One practical method that has been investigated is the usage of the shape as an energy receiver in the form of microwave or laser energy which can then be used or focused to superheat air at the base of the disc to generate thrust.

 Flying Pans and Pancakes

DaVinci's Helicopter
The prototypical flying saucer?
It is recalled that 19th century Yale students indulged in the aerodynamics of flying disks as they threw either the empty pie platters or cookie (can?) lids embossed with the name of the baking company; the Frisbie Pie Company of New Haven, CT. The shape of the these plates imparted some lift, but spinning it gave it the stability to maintain a positive flight attitude through its flight. While there are some images of spinning circular wings, the mechanics of spinning a wing simply to impart stability seems not to have been thought the best way to achieve that result (exception being Guido Fallei's design on the cover of the Sept. 1930 Popular Mechanics?). On the other hand, some inventors looked at the possible added strength from wider or ring like wings as a possible solution of building wings with enough lift area to heave up their weight and not collapse at the same time. The thing to remember is that in the early history of practical manned flight (and particularly pre-flight), there was generally a poor understanding of the mechanics and forces involved in flight, so in truth when some of these designs proved effective it was perhaps more a matter of luck than actual thoughtful, researched, design. The British aviation pioneer George Cayley achieved some success making small gliders with large kite shaped wings which were rather long in chord and narrow in span. Along these lines other 19th century inventors created saucer like designs such as John Wootton and Alphonse PĂ©naud, (1850 - 1880).

George Cayley's early gliders featured kite-like wings in various configurations (bi-planes and triplanes). One design for a helicopter featured saucer-like rotors. John Wootton patented a flying machine that operated like a helicopter and featured a large fixed circular parachute wing for safety. Alphonse Penaud designed a very modern looking flying machine with a large oval wing with engineer Gauchot in 1874. This last design was refined by 1876 with many modern features such as retractable landing gear and automatic controls. Penaud built many models that featured his forward concepts, but was never able to get financing to build a full sized version of his design.

     The advent of actual flying machines did not initially discourage inventors from trying unique and imaginative variations on flying machines. This was due in part to the availability of the resources in lightweight materials and powerplants that finally made these plans viable. There was also a lack of specific knowledge of aerodynamics that might have been used to better analyze these aircraft. It has also been noted that the Wright brother's aggressive protection of their patents did encourage investors to find "different" ways of flying. Louis Bleriot and Gabriel Voisin for instance working in Europe had very sketchy information about the Wright's success (in fact many in Europe doubted they had really flown at all). They chose an annular design for their biplane creating a sturdy structure for their floatplane. In the end, the design did not work and after some modification both designers went their separate, but ultimately successful, ways.
The Bleriot III used an annular or closed wing shape. It was eventually abandoned. The MCormick-Ronne circular aircraft did manage to fly eventually around 1912, but also proved a dead end. The Lee-Richards design of 1913 was a development from the earlier biplane design.
The McCormick-Ronne "Umbrella Plane" or "Cycloplane" had an interesting development history. Originally based on designs by William Romme, it received funding from Harold McCormick of farming machinery fame, and the millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr. starting in 1910. The aircraft's basic design made use of a wing roughly in the shape of a regular polygon, held on a set of radially distributed spokes which in turn were supported by a large centrally mounted mast. Other aspects of the craft changed with time, such as the position of the controls, and the propeller and engine assembly which was variously either pusher, puller, and sometimes connected to the engine by a long shaft. At some point Charles Vought worked on the project as a young engineering graduate. Vought would later found a company that would revisit the "round" airplane concept. In the end the Umbrella Plane proved to be a dead end and was apparently abandoned around 1913.
     The J.G.A. Kitchen, G. T. Richards, and Cedric Lee designed aircraft that used a circular wing planform. Initially Kitchen created a circular biplane which was refined with Richard's help. Disagreement between the designers resulted in subsequent work being developed by Richards with Lee. The Richard Lee Monoplane went through various versions (1,2,3) from 1912 up to 1914. The final version crashed with Lee at the controls, who managed to escape with minor injuries, but the aircraft was a total wreck.
    Stephen Nemeth's, another "Umbrella Plane" built in 1934, mounted a circular wing above a standard fuselage looking like some of over-sized parasol and hence the name. It could take off and land in very short spaces due to that low aspect ratio wing. The circular wing was also only 15 feet in diameter making it easy to store in a hanger "not much larger than the ordinary garage" as the Modern Mechanics of June 1934 noted.

The Nemeth "Umbrella Plane" of 1934. If you can find newsreels of it, it flies surprisingly like a gyrocopter
Some of the more notable aircraft of this type were developed by C.L. Snyder, a podiatrist. He noted the interesting gliding properties of heel lifts and decided to try creating an aircraft around that shape. He did indeed employ actual aviation engineers in his company, the Arup Manufacturing Co.,  so the wing design was not totally based on an artifact of shoe manufacturing. Still, you can see the heel in the designs. It was developed through several models, Arup S-1 thru S-4 and even one off-shoot created by a former Arup engineer Raoul Hoffman who designed the similar Hoffman Flying Wing.
     All these aircraft show remarkable STOL flight characteristics and unique flying characteristics such as maneuvering at slow speeds. In fact newsreels of the craft show them taking off with very little space and practically dropping straight down for landings with rolls of only a few feet. The claim that it could take off and land from your own backyard does not look far fetched.

Strangely enough, the Nemeth and Arup aircraft did not really capture the interest of manufacturers that could have marketed and mass produced the aircraft. Perhaps it was the result of the fairly specific performance envelope at the time. They were also not the only ones to create such designs, the moth-like Aubron-Payen AP-10 being an example. While these aircraft did exhibit remarkable STOL (Short Take Off & Landing) capabilities, they were not that unique for a world dominated by relatively slow, fast climbing biplanes that could operate from small unpaved fields. The contemporary autogyro (precursor to helicopters) could match that performance and even show limited vertical take off capacity. More effectively marketed by Cierva (the inventor) and Pitcairn, autogyros were not limited to one-off prototypes.

World War II

     The U.S. Navy has a strong interest in aircraft that could easily take off and land in short spaces. They considered a design proposed by Charles H. Zimmerman from Chance-Vought. Zimmerman reportedly visited the Arup Company and investigated using the combined effect of the disk-like wing with air blown at high speed from the propellers to enhance lift. Test models of the design were shown to rise practically vertically with good control. Moreover, the design could potentially have fighter-like performance. The prototype V-173 was flown several times and showed much promise. The fighter prototype was the Chance-Vought XF5U-1. It's development was protracted and not completed by the end of the war. After the war it was undergoing engine tests prior to flight tests when the program was canceled. It was a victim of the jet age, as most cutting edge propeller designs were at the end of World War II.
     When talking about World War II saucer aircraft, some mention must be made of Nazi projects. It is true that several strange and unusual aircraft designs were produced by German aircraft designers during the war. It is also true that even stranger, futuristic designs were still on the drawing boards (or actually just left there) at the war's end. They had developed rocket and jet technology to the limits of engineering capacities at the time and in many ways were considerably more advanced than what the Allies had developed by that time. Even so, the stories of highly advanced "flying saucer" designs based on advanced electromagnetic devices or supersonic turbines have to be taken with a relatively large sized grain of salt.
     One of the few documented German "saucers" was fairly conventional and along the lines of Arup and Zimmerman. The Sack AS-6, had a truly circular planform. It was powered by a small engine and in that form would have been limited to simple utility work such as reconnaissance or field courier. Beyond research into that type of wing,  nothing really came from that design.
Various World War II era "round" aircraft (*design only, ** not flown). The Payen 112 (based on the PA-22 racer) was not round, but was perhaps an introduction of low-aspect ratio wings in the presently more familiar delta wing. Of these only the Eshelman Flying Flounder, the Vought V-173, and the Sack AS-6 actually flew. The XF5U was cancelled before flight, whereas the Boeing 390 and FW-Rochen were never built

     Other designs appear to be nothing more than quick paper studies: the Focke-Wulf Rochen that would have hidden a lift fan inside it's teardrop shaped lifting body fuselage, and the Heinkel Wespe and Lerche II designs which were tail-sitters with annular wings. It is doubtful that there was any way these technologically advanced craft could go much beyond theoretical work at the time. After the war much of this information fell into Allied hands, and truth be told, many of these designs proved impractical even with the huge military research budgets of the Cold War. As far as anything else, I really don't want to delve into some of the crazier rumors out there.

Next time:  More human flying saucers...

Links and Resources for Part I

There is of course many areas on the Internet to find out about flying saucers, real and imaginary. Unfortunately, due to their connection to alien technology, they can be pretty odd. In the case of the speculative human saucers, they can also be rather odd (particularly the Nazi ones, which seem to be in a mythological class by themselves). If one can overlook some of the personal points of some of these sites one can find out quite a bit on the real designs. The grain of salt comes when looking at designs that may have been nothing more than a sketch on a piece of paper by people with little aeronautical expertise that's been lost for decades.


Adam Albert said...

I enjoyed you article on circular wings. I too am interested in this shape wing.

Can you tell me what you have found to be the negatives of this design?
Thank you

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JohnF said...

The Sack plane didn't get off the ground, in a couple of variations. The modern Rowe UFO accomplished this with circular planform.

Zimmerman worked with NACA and in that capacity saw the Arup planes fly.
It's not clear why they thought the Arup planes had unusual high parasitic drag due to wing-tip wash around. They didn't exhibit this, so why did he and Vought & the Navy make the monstrosity of the silly flapping prop V-173, instead of the B-390, which was a copy of the Arups.

While biplanes might have accomplished STOL performance, few if any were as slow landing as the Arup, and none of them were as low-drag. With 900+bs and 37hp and 23kts landing speed, the S-2 could do 90+kts. It was also more robust and maintain-able than any of them or autogyros.