With groundbreaking and seemingly crazy airplanes like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk finding their way into service for the U.S. Air Force over the years, it’s hard to imagine how crazy the planes were that Uncle Sam turned down.
When the United States was thrust headlong into World War II’s global conflict, it boasted an Army that was ranked below Portugal’s in terms of strength. By the end of the war, America had become a military juggernaut, boasting nearly 7,000 Navy ships and 300,000 combat aircraft. From that point forward, the United States made it a point to maintain the most powerful and widely capable military apparatus on the globe.
Throughout decades of Cold War competition with the rival superpower Soviet Union, that initiative called for continuous development of bolder, faster, higher-flying aircraft meant to keep tabs on the opposition, and if necessary, to deliver the nuclear blows of the world’s next (and perhaps last) major conflict.
America faced an existential threat in the form of the Soviet Union and its massive nuclear stockpile, and like any animal backed into a corner, the United States responded by pulling out all the stops. For years, the U.S. dumped funding into exotic programs that seemed to stretch the very fabric of what was believed to be possible. Sometimes, that resulted in incredible successes… but just as often, the impossible proved to be, well, impossible.
Here are 5 crazy airplanes that came out of America’s never-ending pursuit of global air superiority.
The YF-12: An SR-71 with missiles
The SR-71 Blackbird may be among the most iconic airframes of the Cold War, but this incredibly fast design wasn’t always intended to serve only as a high-flying set of eyes. In fact, a variant of the SR-71’s predecessor program, the faster and higher-flying A-12, actually had a fighter-interceptor sibling in the form of the YF-12, and eventually (in theory at least) the F-12B.
The biggest changes the YF-12 saw when compared to its A-12 sibling were at the front of the aircraft, where a second cockpit was added for a fire control officer tasked with managing the interceptor’s air-to-air arsenal of Hughes AIM-47 Falcon missiles. The nose was also modified to accommodate the Hughes AN/ASG-18 fire-control radar that had been developed for use in the defunct XF-108 program. The new nose had a negative effect on the aircraft’s stability, so ventral fins were added to the underbelly to offset the change.
VZ-9 Avrocar: America’s (Canadian) flying saucer
While pop-culture ties to the flying saucer shape may have had an influence on the Avrocar’s design, it was a burgeoning interest in vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) platforms that may have been the Avrocar’s most significant driving factor. America’s atomic bomb attacks on Japan in 1947, followed by the first Soviet atomic tests in 1949, made it seem clear that any new major conflict on the European continent would begin with nuclear strikes that would eliminate military installations — and airstrips — throughout much of the region.
As such, an emphasis was placed on developing VTOL platforms that could take off and land without the need for the long airstrips constructed to support advanced fighters and bombers in World War II.
The Avrocar’s designer, Jack Frost, predicted the aircraft would be capable of speeds as high as Mach 4, with a range of 1,000 miles and an operational ceiling of over 100,000 feet. None of those capabilities would ultimately come to fruition.
Convair GRB-36F: America’s flying aircraft carrier
The Convair B-36 Peacemaker was, in truth, a crazy airplane in itself. With a 230 foot wingspan, it dwarfed even the massive B-52 Stratofortress while in service. The aircraft itself was designed to carry nuclear payloads from the United States to Germany and back without needing to land, but its heavy payload capabilities and long-range made it a natural choice for the Air Force’s FICON (Fighter Conveyor) program… Which is military-speak for a flying aircraft carrier.
The premise saw the B-36 carrying fighters internally to extend their operational range and then deploying them via a lowering boom, where they could serve as protection for the bomber, reconnaissance assets, or even execute offensive operations of their own before returning to the B-36 for recovery.
The U.S. Air Force ultimately did away with the concept thanks to the advent of mid-air refueling, which dramatically increased the operational range of all varieties of aircraft and made a flying aircraft carrier concept a less cost effective solution.
XP-79: The “Flying Chainsaw”
The XP-79 was a design conceived by John K. (Jack) Northrop himself, and was one of a number of platforms developed by Northrop to leverage the flying wing design. Today, Northrop Grumman continues to advance flying wing designs, most notably in the form of the in-service B-2 Spirit and forthcoming B-21 Raider.
The XP-79 was much smaller than its stealthy successors would be, with a fuselage built only large enough for a single pilot to lay down in horizontally, marking this aircraft’s first significant departure from common flying wing designs as we know them today. Northrop and his team believed that pilots would be able to withstand greater G forces if they were oriented in the laying position, and because the XP-79 was being designed to utilize jet propulsion, the shift seemed prudent.
Instead of relying on heavy guns and lots of heavy ammo, the XP-79 would literally collide with other aircraft, using its strong wings to tear through the wings or fuselages of encroaching bombers (how’s that for a crazy airplane?). The aircraft was believed to have a top speed of 525 miles per hour with a service ceiling of 40,000 feet, but alas, the XP-79 was, to bastardize a Hunter S. Thompson quote, simply too weird to live.
YF-23: The stealth fighter that could have been
Before Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor won the contract to serve as the world’s first operational 5th Generation fighter, it had to square off against a crazy airplane with better stealth and range in Northrop’s YF-23.
While the F-22 Raptor bears a passing resemblance to conventional 4th generation fighters despite its stealth design, the YF-23 was rather unconventional. Like the F-22, it utilized diamond-shaped wings to reduce its radar signature, but the two diverged dramatically in the nose and tail sections. The YF-23’s nose is striking, with its cockpit pushed forward on the airframe for improved visibility and a drooping duckbill of a nose adding to the platform’s alien aesthetic. On the back, an all-moving V-tail gave the fighter incredible maneuverability despite the platform lacking in the F-22’s thrust vectoring capabilities.
Both Northrop’s YF-23 and Lockheed’s YF-22 were clearly extremely capable fighters. Northrop’s YF-23 offered greater range and superior stealth, but the YF-22 used more advanced avionics and had a slight advantage in maneuverability. Ultimately, that, combined with Lockheed’s better reputation, led to the Air Force’s decision to go with the F-22, rather than the F-23.
Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx news.