Under the cover of darkness on 07 October 1959, a convoy of military vehicles escorted a flatbed truck through the abandoned streets of Malton, Canada just outside of Toronto. Local police had arranged to clear the route from a top-secret aircraft hangar to Toronto harbor, so the drivers paid little mind to traffic laws as they traversed the city. Upon arrival at the harbor the concealed cargo would be transferred to a US Navy tugboat, where it would make its way to a special NASA research facility in the United States under close guard. The exaggerated security was understandable given the circumstances: The secret stowed beneath the truck’s tarps was a real-life flying saucer.
If eyewitness reports are to be believed, the skies over the United States were swarming with unidentified flying objects during the early 1950s. Such sightings were not unheard of previously, but never before had the reports been so frequent and widespread. Some people suspected hoaxes and hysteria, and others speculated about otherworldly origins. While few doubted that there was something strange lingering in America’s air, US military leaders were skeptical that the blobs of light were piloted by moon-men or martians. They were quite concerned, however, about the possibility that the blob-occupants were Russian-speaking.
There had long been credible rumors of secret Nazi “flying disk” attack planes being tested during the final few months of the Third Reich, and with the sharp rise in saucer sightings US officials wondered if Soviet scientists might have plundered and perfected the technology. Fortunately, the US wasn’t too far behind; by the mid 1950s they had their own flying saucer program well underway.
The United States’ venture in flying saucer technology began in 1953 during a routine visit to Avro Aircraft, an outfit located in Malton. A gaggle of US defense experts were inspecting the shiny new CF-100 fighter jet when their tour was commandeered by a company engineer named John C. M. Frost— better known as “Jack” Frost. Frost was a highly accomplished aeronautics designer, as well as the head of the company’s Special Projects Group. He showered the unsuspecting Americans with enthusiasm and information regarding one of Avro’s secret but recently abandoned ideas. Frost’s “Project Y” was a flat, wedge-shaped theoretical aircraft intended to lift off vertically like a helicopter while also possessing the speed, agility, and high-altitude capabilities of a jet fighter.
The Americans were understandably intrigued, particularly when Frost shared a series of sketches outlining further advancements. His tantalizing new idea described an extremely maneuverable frisbee-shaped aircraft, capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and able to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet and speeds up to Mach 3.5. The US military eagerly adopted the orphan project, rejuvenating the research with $750,000 in funding and renaming the platform to “Weapons System 606A.”
US interest in VTOL aircraft was motivated largely by the lingering threat of nuclear war. Just a few years earlier, Soviet scientists had exploded their first atomic bomb using uranium liberated from the Nazis and plans pilfered from the Americans, an event which prompted some significant changes in defense philosophy. Military strategists were concerned about the fact that conventional jets had to be concentrated around airfields in order to remain practical, making each military airbase a likely target and a liability in the event of a nuclear war. In contrast, a widely dispersed Air Force made up of supersonic VTOL flying saucers would be much more resilient. The military men were tickled at the prospect.
Over the following months the members of the Avro Special Projects Group labored under a veil of secrecy in their secure hangar. Only a handful of employees had access to the building, and armed guards at each door scrutinized all credentials. In the company machine shop, workers fabricated individual parts based on separate schematics, and upon completion all drawings were taken away in special bags to be destroyed. Few had even the vaguest notion what sort of clandestine goings-on were being undertaken in the notorious Experimental Hangar.
A rudimentary version of Frost’s flying saucer slowly materialized over the following months. It employed a unique configuration of his own design, sporting a large central turbine that was driven by the thrust of six inward-facing Viper jet engines. The rapidly spinning turbine would act as a gyroscope to keep the machine balanced, while also sucking air from above the craft and squirting it out through a series of downward-pointing vents around the lip of the saucer. At low altitudes, this would provide a ground effect cushion of air to support the vehicle’s weight, and the thrust could then be routed through a network of ducts and flaps to rapidly launch the craft into the sky in any direction. Frost and his team affectionately referred to this unique design as the “pancake engine.”
When the aviation experts of the Special Projects Group first began unmanned testing inside a special rig, the prototype proved problematic. The contraption had a tendency to ooze oil, and on several occasions it caught fire as a result. One nearly-fatal incident with a rogue jet engine left workers very wary of the apparatus, and Frost concluded that the best course of action would be to scale the design down into a more manageable prototype.
In 1958 Frost approached his military investors with a revised concept. This new layout was more compact at only eighteen feet in diameter; and it was less complex, with three jet engines rather than six. His crew called their new concept the Avrocar. Air Force officials were delighted that they might see a working prototype sooner than expected, and the US Army expressed interest in using the new pint-sized version as a “flying jeep.” Members of Avro’s management were similarly excited, envisioning a whole line of Avrocar spinoffs, such as the Avrowagon for the jet-setting family of the future, and the Avroangel for use as an airborne ambulance. Many of the military personnel who were privy to the project suspected that the Avrocar and its cousins would one day render the helicopter obsolete.
In May of 1959, the first Avrocar prototype was carted out of its top-secret hangar for its initial tethered flight test. The prototype requirements had originally called for a ten-minute hover capability and twenty-five mile range, but Frost calculated that his team’s prototype would be capable of reaching 250 miles per hour, 10,000 feet in altitude, and 130 miles in range. But as the unmanned vehicle struggled to hover inside its protective rig, the team of engineers were discouraged to see that its performance was much poorer than anticipated. It was soon discovered that the vehicle was inhaling its own hot jet exhaust, causing a sharp reduction in engine efficiency. A few months’ tinkering did little to circumvent the problem, so the Special Projects Group decided to pack it on a flatbed truck and send it to the US tugboat for wind-tunnel testing at NASA. In the meantime, they revised the internals of the second model.
On 29 September 1959, the reworked Avrocar #2 was ready for testing. Test pilot W.D. “Spud” Potocki clambered into the tethered experimental vehicle and strapped himself into the cramped cockpit. The trio of engines roared to life, and Potocki verified that the instrument panel didn’t indicate any problems. He gently increased the throttle, and the violently vibrating vehicle responded by ponderously pulling its feet from the earth. He inched the craft into the air as he got a feel for the controls, but at about 3-4 feet up something unexpected happened. The craft tilted sharply to the side, and began to oscillate uncontrollably like a dropped hub cap spinning on its rim. The test pilot immediately cut the engines, and the Avrocar dropped to the ground.
Through the rest of 1959 and the two years that followed, Frost and his team tested a series of modifications which made gradual improvements to the aircraft’s abilities. To resolve the “hubcapping” problem, a central stabilizing jet was added by drilling holes in the bottom center of the body, and the team enhanced the vehicle’s lift characteristics by installing a reworked flap system. By April 1961, the design was sufficiently improved that “Spud” Potocki was able to hover around the compound with relative ease, at times reportedly reaching speeds over 100 miles per hour. On cold days, the Avrocar’s wind could suck the frozen water off the tops of the puddles and the glassy sheets of ice would float through the air. But for all of its improvements, the Avrocar was still dangerously unstable while maneuvering, and unable to safely hover much higher than 3-4 feet above the ground. The cockpit was also plagued by an oppressive amount of heat and noise from the three internal jet engines.
As ever, Frost’s mind was bristling with potential solutions, but in spite of the incremental improvements the US military had become disenchanted with the flying saucer concept. After spending eight years and $7.5 million, the Air Force officially canceled funding in late 1961, and the Avrocar project collapsed under its own weight. Jack Frost left Canada an embittered man, but he eventually settled down at Air New Zealand where he applied his ingenuity to more ordinary aircraft improvements such as hydraulic tail docks and air-conditioning systems. He found some measure of joy in his new work, but he never really stopped grieving for his unrealized flying saucer ambitions. Many of his discoveries went on to benefit the development of the modern hovercraft, a vehicle which some fittingly described as nothing more than an Avrocar in a short rubber skirt.
Although Jack Frost died in 1979, he was posthumously inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001 for his novel ideas in the art of aeronautics. Both of Frost’s Avrocar prototypes are still somewhat intact today; one is on display at the US Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and the other is collecting dust and rust in a National Air and Space Museum storage building in Silver Hills, Maryland.
Perhaps with a bit more time and few more resources, Jack Frost’s ingenuity and tenacity could have eventually brought this revolutionary aircraft to fruition. Had it not been for the shortage of patience and imagination on the part of military officials in the 1960s, we might all be hovering around in our Avrowagons today, bemoaning the price of jet fuel and dodging supersonic soccer moms who are too busy talking on their video cell phones to keep their eyes on the sky. Once again, the future that might have been seems far more impressive than the reality that we must accept.