This cute little guy was easy to fly, stable, and could recover from spins effortlessly. The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin was the smallest jet fighter ever built. But it wasn’t designed to land, and it could not takeoff from the ground. The Goblin was conceived as a fighter escort to large bombers as back up fighting power. To this end, it was stored in large bombers like the B-36 in case of an attack. The Goblin was then launched from the bomber’s belly and dropped into combat.
The only problem was it didn’t work. The Goblin was easily lowered into flight from the mother ship, but issues arose when it was to be hooked and raised by a tether back into the ship. On a test flight, pilot Ed Schoch made three attempts to reconnect with the retractable tether. On the final try, the little jet fighter smashed into the tether so forcefully the plane was damaged and had to make an emergency skid landing. After seven attempts to re-tether produced just three results, the test program ended. One of the surviving two Goblins is interned at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson air Force Base in Ohio.
The Bell X-1
This supersonic aircraft, built way back in the Forties, could really scoot! The experimental rocket plane topped out at 1,000 mph, becoming the first manned supersonic flight. On October 14, 1947, a sonic boom exploded over the skies of the Mojave Desert when the Bell X-1, piloted by Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager, hit Mach 1.06, breaking the sound barrier. The flight inspired jet fighter movies like The Right Stuff.
The experimental aircraft was designed to withstand 18x the force of gravity. A set of four rockets provided an engine that blasted out 6,000 lbs. of thrust for extreme acceleration. The Bell X-1 does not take off like regular planes, it was put into flight by dropping from the belly of a Boeing B-29 mother ship. It came together as a joint project between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the U.S. Army and Air Forces. Bell Aircraft built the project that proved aircraft could fly faster than the speed of sound. It was initially conceived of in 1944.
The Aerodrome A
Noted physicist Samuel Pierpont Langley tried his hand at aeronautics around the close of the 19th Century. He achieved the first unmanned flight of a heavier-than-air vessel on May 6, 1896, with his Aerodrome Number 5. It flew 3,300 feet at 25 mph.
With that success, the U.S. military fronted Langley $50,000 in 1898 to build a manned aircraft. He set to work on the Aerodrome A, what he called a “human-carrying” airplane, but the project was ill-fated. He tried to scale-up the unmanned models to human-carrying size. It was an aerodynamically impossible design and both of his attempts crashed upon takeoff in 1903. The Wright brothers won that race in December of that same year, nine days after Langley’s last try. However, the engine Langley designed was a 52.4 horsepower powerplant which was impressive and unheard of at the time.
The Lockheed XFV-1 Salmon
In the 1950s, experimentation in VTOL technology was pursued by all of the world’s major militaries. The Lockheed XFV-1 was designed to take off and land from a tail mounted position. The U.S. Navy ordered the concept craft and Lockheed delivered two prototypes. In 1953, the first aircraft was named after its original test pilot, Herman Salmon.
Sitting on its tail, with three blades of contra-rotating propellers, the Salmon looked like a freak of nature, but could it perform? Short answer, no. It handled very poorly, and not even the pilot it was named after liked it. The powerful trio of propellers were difficult to control and they were the only option for landing or takeoffs. In the end, after 32 test flights, the Salmon was unable to make any VTOL maneuvers. The project was shelved by 1955.
The Grumman X-29
This experiment in flight innovation by Grumman for NASA and the U.S. Air Force plainly flopped. Built with wings that look backward, called forward-swept wings, this design feature of the X-29 was supposed to optimize handling and maneuverability. Jet fighting at supersonic high speeds, with tight turns, even with the nose pointing straight up, was to be a breeze in the Grumman X-29. As it turned out, pilots could not even command the beast without autopilot.
While computer flight control is a miracle of aeronautics, the Grumman X-29 was unmanageable without it. The plane became completely unstable, no pilot could fly it. The experimental plane flew a total of 436 test flights and remained an active program from 1984 to 1992. Yet, while the aerodynamics of the X-29 failed, the research the aircraft provided was a boon to fighter jet technology.