Monday, January 14, 2013

Saucers Beyond, Way Beyond, Reason

Kenneth Arnold pointing to a drawing of what he saw "skipping" like a "saucer" in 1947.
The shape looks more like a boomerang than an actual saucer.

The "secret" flying saucer that reached an altitude of 20 feet.  Inconsistent details inside!

The "secret" Avro (also known as Avrocar) flying saucer in a public display in 1958.

The idea of a "flying saucer" has managed to  become so entangled in confusion, misunderstandings,  ancient  hypotheses,  and possible government-created misinformation, that it we may never be able to consign it to the Dumpster of history.

The saucer's latest appearance is on the cover of the Feb. 13 Popular Mechanics, which carries a story about a recently declassified file containing information purporting to show that the U.S. and Canada were developing a Cold War flying saucer, with which to shoot down Soviet bombers.

A digression: Isn't it only mid-January? Is the magazine from the future? 

The box of "secret" documents included drawings, but not the kind of plans that a company would use to construct an actual machine.

To straighten out this miasma of the not-quite true and blatantly false, it helps to first understand where the concept of "flying saucer" originated. A Washington state businessman pilot,  Kenneth Arnold, was flying over Mount Rainier, when he saw a formation of unidentifiable flying objects.

Upon landing at Pendleton, Ore to refuel,  Arnold told his story to the "media." The version I like best has him describing the event to Nolan Skiff, an editor of the East Oregonian newspaper. Depending on whom you believe,  Anderson described the motion of the mysterious objects as skipping up and down like a saucer hurled onto a lake.

He did not say he saw something shaped like a saucer. Later on, he did describe the objects as saucer-lilke, convex at the front and concave at the rear, whatever that means. Skiff, or someone else, invented the word combination "flying saucer."

Arnold described what he saw as acting like saucers. Soon thereafter, some people strangely open to suggestion, started to report sightings of flying saucers. A staple of science fiction was born.

Arnold died in 1984,  at age 68, relieving him of having to describe what he saw over and over and over and over, if, that is, he saw anything.

The fable continues in the mid-1950s. Depending on the narrator, either the Nazis had been working on a flying saucer, or the idea simply occurred to a Canadian John "Jack" Frost, who worked at an aeronautical company called Avro Canada. Frost, somewhat optimistically, predicted that a saucer-shaped airplane could travel at four times the speed of sound at more than 100,000 feet.

The real flying pancake designed and built by Vought in the late 1930s

The next part of the tale starts to get more and more complicated. For starters, the U.S. aviation company Vought  proposed a circular craft, which became known as the "flying pancake," in the years before World War II.

Vought, in Stratford,  also manufactured the famous F4U Corsair fighter that decimated Japanese aircraft during the war in the Pacific.

The plane's designer, Charles H. Zimermann,  came up with a flattened, cylindrical fuselage, which had two engines in the front and stabilizers in the back. Note that the plane vaguely resembled a pancake, especially after a 1939 prototype was painted in Navy colors of the time, yellow on top and silver on the bottom.

The XF5U never entered service and did not acquire a fighting name. It is now in the Smithsonian.

The flying flapjack was aerodynamically sensible and a flattened disk with an oval cross-section minimizes drag and maximizes lift. Note that it has a front end and a back end. The fuselage was intended to go in one direction.

Flying saucers, however, spin. At least in the movies. So one way or the other, either the front or back, both and/or neither is rotating around you.  Somehow. Helicopter blades and rotors are complex, but nothing compared to engineering something piloted that revolves at perhaps 10 times a second.

The saucer, code named 1794-A had no front or back and drawings and photos in Popular Mechanics indicate that it did not spin. Consider the difficulty of a spinning disk manned airplane. How would it maneuver? How would it travel in a straight line? Or Turn?  How about the problem of torque? And what would connect the pilot and controls to the rest of the craft?

Some images of the secret saucer show it spinning. Others do not. Some show a fan-like "turbulator" in the center, others, do not.  Popular Mechanics shows both. Also, a drawing of one with a pilot's seat in the middle.

Project 1794-A does not spin, but is "omnidirectional," meaning it has no "back" or "front." Jet engines are buried in the craft, and are vented to the surface through complicated gated slots. The principle that was supposed to make this thing fly is called the Candoa effect.

This effect is named after Romanian aerodynamic physicist Henri Candoa, who realized in 1910 that the effect could play a role in airplane design. The actual effect was described by Thomas Young in a lecture to the Royal Society in England in 1880.

In essence, the Candoa effect is what makes water run down the side of your glass and under your glass, when you are trying to pour a glass of water, or some other liquid, into another container. It is what causes liquids and gasses to cling to curved surfaces. Something like that.

The Avro Car 1794-A employed Candoa to provide lift. Jet exhaust would speed out and over the smooth surface of the saucer and gather under the craft.  This was somehow going to make the craft travel at Mach 4. A "secret" flight test in the mid-1950s found that the craft could climb no higher than 20 feet.

The U.S. Air Force canceled its part of the project in 1961, by which time conventional airplanes with fuselage, empennage,  wings, and vertical and horizontal stabilizers were reaching Mach 2 and beyond.

If there's any irony here, it's that the Vought flying pancake could actually fly, and if powered by World War II era jet engines, may have reached 550 miles an hour. If only Arnold had been flying over Stratford instead of a volcano in Washington and a decade or so earlier.

Flying saucers, as they inhabit the imagination.

To be fair to Popular Mechanics, what they show photos of actually does or did exist. But the implication that the Avro was a big secret until now is just silly.

As for Kenneth Arnold, why didn't he, at some point, clarify his description of what he apparently saw?  What if he'd said the mystery craft were somehow acting like teapots, would everyone assume that they looked like teapots, and start seeing teapots?

Remember then: If you think you see a saucer-shaped UFO, than either the aliens are in on the joke, it's an incredible coincidence, or you're seeing something that was suggested to you that does not really exist.

Were the Germans really doing flying saucer research before "flying saucers" were known to allegedly exist?
This one does not look heavily armed.