Aircraft aweful and awesome

Flying Machines, Ancient and Mythical

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing Historian

***image1***One of the more interesting aspects of aircraft development is how the same problems tend to generate similar solutions at the same time in different countries though there is seemingly little connection. In the early 1930s, while the biplane performance had clearly gone as far as it could go, there was still the desire for increased performance with the relatively low-powered engines available. Some form of flying wing seemed to offer a solution.  In both Great Britain and the Soviet Union, a few bold designers attempted to develop flying wing-type combat aircraft with good performance on low-powered engines.

In the UK, the main attempts were made by the Westland Company. From the late 1920s, Westland developed a series of tailless flying wings called the Pterodactyls, named after the flying dinosaur. The ultimate development, pictured above, was the Pterodactyl Mark V, certainly one of the most radical fighters ever attempted. It had a very narrow, short (17 foot) fuselage that carried the pilot, a rear gunner, tandem landing gear and a one-of-a-kind 600 horsepower, steam-cooled Rolls Royce Goshawk engine. The wing configuration was a long upper wing, sharply swept for center of gravity reasons, with a fin at each end. It was attached by struts to a short lower wing, a configuration called a sesquiplane. The thick lower wings had outrigger wheels on the tips to keep the aircraft straight for landing and take off. 

***image2***Unfortunately, the unique landing gear arrangement failed in its first taxi test when one of the struts between the wings collapsed. The aircraft was repaired and flew two years later, in May 1934, and displayed satisfactory flying characteristics, especially considering its exotic design. It was to be sent to the Royal Air Force for tests as a fighter armed with two .303 machine guns firing forward and a rear facing two gun turret. On the delivery flight, the Goshawk engine failed and the Pterodactyl had to force land, seriously damaging the engine. Since there were no more of the steam cooled Goshawk engines, the project was dropped.

At about the same time, the Soviet designer K.A. Kalinin proposed a flying wing bomber called the K-12 or VS-2 (voiskovoi samolet, military aircraft).
The design was similar in many ways to the Pterodactyl but less radical. The K-12 was a short fuselaged, straight wing (actually, more trapezoidal wing) monoplane and, like the British aircraft, it had fins on the wing tips and a gun turret in the rear of the fuselage. It was powered, or more likely underpowered, by two 450 hp M-22 engines, Soviet-built versions of the Bristol Jupiter, and was expected to carry 1000 pounds of bombs. But unlike the British aircraft, the K-12 showed very poor flying characteristics, demonstrating poor stability and ineffective controls, especially at slow speeds.
Perhaps in an attempt to save the program, Kalinin had the prototype painted in a garish red and yellow feather scheme. It was named Zhar Ptitsa – the Phoenix,  after the legendary bird that rises from its own ashes.  It was displayed at the annual Soviet air show at Tushino in 1937.  Apparently, 10 were actually built, but test flying ceased in 1938 when Kalinin was arrested, imprisoned, and executed by the KGB after a string of unsuccessful designs.

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