Technological advances have taken us airborne and then some. But to get here, aviation’s innovators had to travel some rough roads. There were missteps and detours, instances in which technology failed to deliver on its promise—or initially delivered on that promise, only to fall by the wayside or become an exhibit in a museum.
Aviation’s earliest days are riddled with prototypes that couldn’t get off the ground (or if they did, they only managed to get a few feet off the ground): umbrella planes with circular wings and an engine in the center; an aircraft with drum-shaped wings (and no lift, apparently); an airplane with curved wings much like a seagull’s; ornithopters; airplanes with five cambered wings. That’s just a handful. (From the Museum of Unnatural History)
The BBC gets the credit for bringing this U.K. World War I-era warplane to light. The airplane’s propeller and engine were located between the front gunner, who sat in a plywood nacelle, and the pilot. The design was intended to give the front gunner an unobstructed view of his targets—but if the airplane were to crash, the gunner could be crushed by the engine or chewed up by the propeller. Only one was built.
Aerospace engineer, inventor, and philanthropist Howard Hughes intended the world’s largest airplane at the time to carry troops and supplies. He designed a flying boat made primarily of birch, because his wartime contract with the U.S. government restricted the use of aluminum or steel. The massive aircraft flew just once—during a taxi test in 1947. The press and critics dubbed it “The Spruce Goose,” a nickname that Hughes reportedly loathed. The H-4 Hercules resides in the Evergreen Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
The United Kingdom beat the United States to the jet age when it produced the world’s first jet airliner. The pressurized de Havilland Comet showed great promise, offering a quiet, comfortable ride. But, in a series of accidents in 1954, the airplanes began breaking up in flight. The cause was metal fatigue resulting from pressurization. De Havilland redesigned the Comet and put it back into service in 1958, the year in which Boeing rolled out the 707. Boeing’s design effectively knocked the Comet out of the jet race. The final two prototypes were used to build prototypes of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft.
The twin-engine turboprop was meant to be a successor to the Beechcraft King Air. Its radical design melded a pusher configuration with a canard and used carbon fiber materials. Then came a slew of problems: FAA certification added 2,000 pounds to the airplane’s weight; then-Raytheon/ Beechcraft’s suppliers failed to deliver their subcomponents on time, which created production delays. Even a free maintenance program for owners didn’t move inventory. Raytheon/Beechcraft ended up buying back and parking most of the airplanes. Four are said to be flying today.