VZ-9 Avrocar: Why It Never Made it Into Service – Thanks in part to the popular culture of the 1950s, unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are almost synonymous with “flying saucers.” Movies such as 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, followed by The War of the Worlds two years later, showed aliens in such spacecraft/war machines.
The latter is notable in that it was quite a departure from the mechanical “walkers” that were described in H.G. Wells’ novel on which the film was based.
However, the trend of sighted saucer-like ships continued for decades and could be seen in such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Independence Day (1996).
Clearly, the idea of a flying saucer has stuck in the popular consciousness. But this is notable as prior to the Cold War, depictions of spacecraft were more rocket-like as seen as in the 1930s serials such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
So what caused the flying saucer sensation?
Possibly for two reasons: some notable misunderstandings, and a very real military experiment.
Kenneth Arnold and the Flying Saucers
Prior to June 24, 1947 there had been no reference to flying saucers. That is because it was on that day that Kenneth Arnold, an amateur pilot from Idaho, was flying his little plane, a CallAir A-2, over Mineral, Washington. As The Atlantic reported, the skies were clear, and Arnold was flying to an air show in Oregon.
He was taking an indirect route – as a United States Marine Corps C-46 transport aircraft had gone down and there was a $5,000 reward for anyone who found the wreckage. While Arnold didn’t find the C-46, he saw a bright light that didn’t seem to be coming from any kind of known aircraft.
When he tried to describe the motion of the objects for the United Press there was the aforementioned misunderstanding. Arnold said the craft flew “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.” The reporter took that description to mean the actual object, which was described as “flying saucers.”
Within weeks there were similar reports of “flying saucers” in the skies throughout the United States. Then on July 8, 1947, the Eighth Air Force issued a statement that reported that an “experimental military weather balloon” had crashed. However, a day earlier another press release had already gone out that described how personnel from the 509th Operations Group had received a craft that had crashed near a ranch in Roswell, New Mexico – it described a crashed flying disc, and essentially began the UFO phenomenon.
Even before The Day the Earth Stood Still, low budget films such as 1950’s The Flying Saucer and Flying Disc Man from Mars only served to ensure that people would think of UFOs to mean flying saucers.
The VZ-9 Avrocar: Meet Avro Project 1794
The irony is that despite the misunderstandings, there was actually a very real flying saucer – at least of sorts. It wasn’t extraterrestrial, however, and it didn’t end up working out. It was part of the United States Air Force’s Project 1794, an effort to develop a supersonic craft that could be used to shoot down Soviet bombers.
The project began in the 1950s when the Air Force and U.S. Army began to work with the Canadian-based Avro Aircraft to develop an attack craft that was unlike the jet fighters of the era. Rather than featuring the standard wing and fuselage design, it was literally a saucer-shaped vehicle. In theory, its designers believed it would have a top speed between Mach 3 and Mach 4, a ceiling over 100,000 feet, and a maximum range of 1,000 nautical miles.
According to unclassified documents, it was developed to utilize vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities that would negate the need for conventional runways and therefore could theoretically be deployed almost anywhere. Additionally, as it featured an almost completely circular design, it would have embodied inherent stealth characteristics.
All that sounded good, but it was unable to live up to the promise.
The VZ-9 Avrocar (‘VZ’ stood for ‘experimental vertical flight,’ ‘9’ for the ninth concept proposal, and ‘AV’ for Avro) looked very much like the flying saucers out of the movies, but actually, it could barely fly. Instead of reaching a ceiling of 10,000 feet, it could never fly more than a few feet off the ground – and while it was specified to have a maximum speed of 300mph, it could never fly faster than 35mph. In wind tunnel tests the aircraft had insufficient control for high-speed flight and was aerodynamically unstable.
Two prototypes were eventually built before the project was canceled in December 1961. The first prototype eventually went to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio in 2007, while the second prototype aircraft went to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
While the VZ-9 Avrocar came after the initial UFO craze, and likely wasn’t an aircraft that was spotted by individuals, military photos of the aircraft certainly leaked out over the years and that likely only reinforced that the Army and Air Force were copying alien technology. The truth isn’t out there – the truth is that a saucer makes for bad aerodynamics in an atmosphere and likely is inefficient in space as well.
Because of a misunderstanding, the public became fascinated by flying saucers, and apparently so did the U.S. military.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.