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The Worst Failed Flying Machines

The Worst Failed Flying Machines

By Paul Kirsch

The history of flight is colored by innovation and failure, trial and error, and some truly ridiculous stupidity. And we all know that the best stuff to read about is the CRAZIEST stuff. So, without further ado, we give you our list of the absolute worst failed flying machines in human history!

“Flying Bomb Guided by Man Pilot”

In 1938, the “Bomb Wizard” Lester P. Barlow designed a man-operated, flying bomb. The design showcases a cramped fuselage, where the pilot had to lay flat on his stomach to operate the minimalist controls. The explosives were stored in the plane's detachable nose. The expectation that some poor enlisted fellow would steer his doomed vessel into a controlled dive and deploy his payload with enough time to veer off and eject at a safe distance was, to say the least, overly optimistic.

Charles Ritchel’s Hand-Crank Dirigible

Judging by the advertisements, Charles Ritchel dreamed of a common man's casual flight. This ship boasted a simple frame for lightness and storage, and a gas bag that looked as graceful as a bale of hay. Emphasizing its ease of use, the sole pilot and passenger was an unruffled gentleman sporting a mustache and top hat, with his boots calmly resting in a pair of stirrups. What it didn't show were the physical efforts needed to maintain forward momentum, like operating the hand-cranked propeller. Also overlooked were the safety restraints and any consideration of turbulence, but some would call those "details." Ritchel sold five of his laborious airships.

The Confederate Helicopter

During the American Civil War, the Confederacy overestimated more than their chances of secession. They also grossly misjudged their understanding of aerodynamics. Necessity was the catalyst of invention as the Confederates sought a means of breaking Union blockades. Engineer William Powers designed a prototype helicopter using the principles of Archimedes' screw, which are found today in chocolate fountains and farming equipment, but hardly air travel. The device never made it off the ground. Not for lack of faith in its ability to fly, but because it was never built. Concerns that the treasured device would fall into Union hands halted its progress.

The Hindenberg

The problem with the Hindenberg was its success, actually. It performed quite well, as did many of the German zeppelins that preceded it. A future of luxurious, casual air travel by rigid airship stretched ahead. The political difficulties and practicalities of the time forced Germany to use flammable Hydrogen in the airship's gas bags, as opposed to the safer Helium alternative. Whatever else occurred during its first transatlantic flight, its fate, and the fate of air travel, was sealed by fire. The Titanic-esque downfall of the Hindenberg consigned lighter-than-air travel to Steampunk alternate histories and Good Year advertisements.

What machine do you think might have worked with just a little tweaking?

Tags: science, lists, airplanes, steampunk, flight, hindenburg

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About the Author
Paul Kirsch

Paul Kirsch is the product of Twilight Zone marathons and old-timey radio dramas. He writes about writing at www.paul-kirsch.com, and self-identifies as an octopus trapped in a man's body.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email contribute@sparknotes.com.