A Brief History
On August 31, 1965, fans of super-different airplanes could add another oddity to their list when the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy made its first flight. A bulbous looking whale of an airplane, the Super Guppy was the successor to the Pregnant Guppy, an equally goofy looking giant cargo plane. Today we take a look at some of these quite real and intended for practical use airplanes, not jokes or intentionally comical, but serious aircraft built with a serious purpose. Some of these airplanes were experimental, others saw active service. As always, give us your nominations of planes that could have been included on this list. (See our many aviation, aircraft and airplane related articles.)
Aero Spacelines Super Guppy.
The Super Guppy had been developed from the Pregnant Guppy which in turn was based on the C-97 military cargo plane, itself based on the Boeing 377 airliner which in turn was originally based on the B-29 Superfortress bomber. (It would appear Boeing got their money’s worth out of the B-29 airframe as it had also been used to develop the B-50 bomber and the KC-97 aerial tanker.) Only 5 Super Guppies were ever built. Operated by NASA, their purpose was to move oversized cargo. Loading was done over the nose which would swing to the side (to port) to reveal the cavernous interior cargo bay. Later, Airbus bought the rights to the design, and in 1982 and 1983, UTA Industries built 2 of these balumpus transports for France (Note: “Balumpus” is an adjective made up especially for this article).
Cessna O-2 Skymaster.
The military version of the Cessna Skymaster, this handy little plane served from 1967 until 2010. Over 500 were built for use as forward air control and observation aircraft, as well as general purpose utility aircraft, including being used during psychological operations warfare. At least 15 countries used the O-2, which could carry its 2 man crew and a modest payload of rockets or bombs as well as a “mini-gun” gatling type machine gun pod up to 1000 nautical miles. Top speed was 199 mph. The distinguishing characteristic of the O-2 was the 2 engine configuration with one in the front and one in the back in a “push me-pull you” arrangement with a central crew/cargo pod and twin booms.
Scaled Composites Model 281 Proteus.
First flown in 1998, the only example of this airplane that was built is still in service as a high altitude, long range, multi-mission plane designed by Burt Rutan. The Model 281 can stay above a point on the ground for an incredible 18 hours straight without refueling. Powered by a pair of turbofan engines, the Proteus can fly as fast as 313 mph and as high as over 61,000 feet, with a 2 man crew and the ability to carry a payload of over 1 ton, usually some sort of electronics for testing purposes. Northrup Grumman now owns the only Proteus. The Proteus is a highly unusual looking airplane, with a “tandem” wing design, basically 2 sets of main lifting wings, one set forward and the other much farther aft. The engines are located along the rear of the central fuselage, while the aft wings each sprout a boom trailing to the back with the rudders and vertical stabilizers, although with no connecting tailplane between the end of the booms. The skinny wings and delicate looking structure give the plane a decidedly fragile appearance.
Grumman built 2 of these experimental jets for the US Air Force first flown in 1984 but now retired. The striking appearance of the X-29 is due to the forward swept wings and smaller winglets forward of the main wings. Obviously, the purpose of the X-29 was to create a practical test bed of the advantages and disadvantages of having a combat jet aircraft with forward swept wings. With a single General Electric jet engine, the X-29 was capable of supersonic speed of over 1100 mph (Mach 1.8) and due to its inherent instability it required onboard computers to maintain control of the aircraft.
McDonnell F-85 Goblin.
This little jet fighter got its small size and weird shape from its intended mission as a “parasite” fighter carried by a large bomber, such as the Consolidated B-36. The idea was that the bomber could carry its own fighter escort so that the fighters would not have to match the extremely long range of the bomber, a totally impractical requirement of fighters of the 1940’s. First flown in 1948, the project was cancelled in 1949 with only 2 of the funky little jets built. Max speed was 650 mph, quite reasonable for the time, but armament was a modest 4 X .50 caliber machine guns. With upturned wing tips (an oddity for its day) and a really weird looking tail with the outer portions turned up sharply in a “U” type arrangement, with the vertical stabilizer/rudder in between, the stubby and chubby fuselage topped off the odd look of the F-85. Another nifty feature was that the wings could fold upward when the fighter was to be stored inside the bomb bay of the bomber.
Dornier Do-335 Arrow (Pfeil).
A 2 engine heavy fighter, the Pfeil was powered by propeller driving engines in the front and the back of the fuselage, a push-pull arrangement unlike any other World War II fighter plane. Lucky for the Allies, the Germans only built 37 of these heavy fighters capable of 475 mph, faster than any other piston engine fighter of World War II. Armed with a 30mm autocannon in the nose firing through the propeller hub and 2 X cowl mounted 20mm autocannons the Pfeil could pump out enough exploding shells to quickly and efficiently take down tough Allied heavy bombers. The Pfeil could also carry rockets and bombs. The Do-335 sat high on tall landing gear necessitated to clear the large propellers from the runway, and the tail was an unusual cruciform/4 axis arrangement, with an upper and a lower vertical stabilizer. Overall, though unusual looking, the Arrow was sleek and deadly in appearance, and had it been produced earlier, it could have created havoc among Allied bomber formations. No Do-335 is known to have actually engaged in combat before the end of World War II. These planes were among the first ever equipped with ejection seats for the pilot. (Note: When we say “heavy fighter,” the weight of the Do-335 was well over double that of a P-51 Mustang or British Spitfire.)
Stipa-Caproni and Alexander Lippisch’s Aerodyne.
Both of these weird planes were more or less flying barrels. The Stipa-Caproni made its debut in 1932, with its barrel shaped body containing the propeller shrouded inside the body of the fuselage, hence the rotund shape. With its stubby looking wings, it really did not look like something that would actually fly, although of course it did! Only 1 copy of the experimental plane was built. Powered by a 120 motor, top speed was a paltry 133 mph. The other barrel shaped airplane listed here, the Aerodyne, was designed by Alexander Lippisch of Messerschmidt Me-163 Komet World War II rocket plane fame. Lippisch was an aviation pioneer that was the first to use the delta wing design and the tail-less type of airplane. Produced for Dornier in 1972, the Aerodyne was an unmanned aircraft with no wings, giving it a distinctive barrel-like appearance. It was designed to perform in the vertical take off and landing mode, while flying in the horizontal plane for faster travel. Like the Stipa-Caproni, only one copy of the Aerodyne was ever built.
Vought V-173 Flying Pancake.
This weird looking twin engine propeller driven aircraft was built in 1942 by Vought, and featured a round, flat body reminiscent of a pancake. The 2 engines were on each side in the front flanking the crew compartment in the middle, and the “tail” consisted of 2 vertical stabilizers in the rear. Designed to test the concept of the flying disc for use on aircraft carriers, the single example of the V-173 was produced in 1942 and retired in 1947. Powered by twin 80 horsepower engines, the V-173 only flew at 133 mph, although the plane was only a technology test bed and not intended to be a prototype of an actual fighter. The ability to take off with an extremely short take off run was proven by the V-173, although the flights of the test plane did (not surprisingly) generate lots of “flying saucer” UFO reports! One of the 190 flights made by the V-173 was piloted by none other than the famous Charles Lindbergh.
Blohm & Voss BV 141.
First flown in 1938 and serving throughout World War II in the German Luftwaffe, the BV 141 was one of the few dramatically asymmetrical airplanes to see active service, with a total of 28 examples produced. Designed as a reconnaissance aircraft, this oddity had a single radial piston powered engine located in the front of the main fuselage, but the crew compartment containing the 3 crewmembers was located in a nacelle to the right (starboard) of the main fuselage giving the BV 141 an awkward, unbalanced look. Making the plane look even more weird, the right/starboard part of the horizontal tailplane was omitted, giving the BV 141 the appearance of being broken! Performance was modest, with a top speed of 272 mph and a ceiling of only 33,000 feet. Range was a more impressive (for German single engine planes of World War II) 1200 miles. With a minor self defense armament of 2 X 7.92mm machine guns, the BV 141 could also carry a small bomb load.
From 1955 to 1962 the people that put tires on our cars and trucks also built a dozen inflatable airplanes, each powered by a single 65 horsepower piston engine driving a rear facing propeller mounted on a trapeze above the main wing. The blunt nose and high wing made the Inflatoplane look similar to a World War II glider, but the balloon nature of the fuselage and wings that took shape when inflated also contributed to the odd appearance. The idea was to create an emergency light aircraft that weighed less than 300 pounds empty that could be folded up into a compact package, easily carried in a small vehicle such as a Jeep, small boat, or even in another airplane to serve as an emergency escape should a pilot be forced down in enemy territory. The inflatable airplane could be taken out when needed, inflated into airplane shape, fueled up and taken off from a short take off run of as little as 250 feet carrying a single crewman at 80 mph for up to 3 hours of flight time. Of course, leaks and punctures were a potential problem, and the design took such mishaps into account, with the ability of the Inflatoplane to suffer up to 6 bullet strikes from .30 caliber rounds without losing its shape. An alternate version of the Inflatoplane had a 40 horsepower 2-cycle engine and could only make a top speed of 72 mph. A 2 person version was also built. Although the plane did work as advertised, the US military opted not to purchase the Inflatoplane. At least 3 copies of the Inflatoplane are on display in museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the Stonehenge Air Museum in Fortine, Montana.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite weird looking airplane? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Dorr, Robert. 365 Aircraft You Must Fly: The most sublime, weird, and outrageous aircraft from the past 100+ years … How many do you want to fly? Crestline Books, 2020.
Taylor, Michael. The World’s Strangest Aircraft: A Collection of Weird and Wonderful Flying Machines. Metro Books, 2001.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Tom Tschida of NASA’s B377SGT Super Guppy Turbine cargo aircraft touching down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. on June 11, 2000 to deliver the latest version of the X-38 flight test vehicle to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, was catalogued by Armstrong Flight Research Center of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Photo ID: EC00-0212-2. This file is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“. (See Template:PD-USGov, NASA copyright policy page or JPL Image Use Policy.)