10 Cancelled Warplanes That Might Have Been
For every military aircraft that makes it into service, a thousand projects survive only in tattered blueprints in filing cabinets or as lonely prototypes in museums. Here, courtesy of War Is Boring’s David Axe and Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles, are 10 warplanes that might have been.
Ed Schmued designed the North American P-51 Mustang fighter that helped the Allies win World War II. A decade later in 1952, now working for Northrop, Schmued outlined a simple, single-engine jet fighter. The N-102 Fang.
Forty-one feet long, powered by a single J79 turbojet and sporting a simple delta wing, the Fang bucked the trend toward bigger, heavier and more complex fighters. Northrop built a mock-up and pitched the N-102 to the Air Force in 1953 and the Navy in 1954. Ultimately, both branches opted for bigger fighters such as the F-4, which was roughly twice the Fang’s size and boasted two J79s.
But Northrop didn’t entirely give up on the idea of a small, simple fighter. The company’s F-5 family of fighters, including the F-5A, the much-improved F-5E and variants and even the prototype F-20 all owe their design philosophy to Schmued’s N-102. F-5s remain in service all over the world.
Aeroplane designers hate wheels. Wheels are for cars. The weight and complexity of a retractable undercarriage is a huge nuisance. Why not do away with them altogether?
The wartime Germans were very keen on this idea and built a series of airplanes that took off from trolleys. The aircraft would simply uncouple itself from the trolley as it took-off, the trolley remaining behind on the runway. The plane would land on simple skids.
A trolley takeoff frees an airplane from the need for vast, vulnerable runways. In a war, airbases would be priority targets and how ever good a fighter was, it be would utterly impotent if it had no runway to take off from.
Mindful of this problem, and fearing the technological hurdles of vertical take-off and landing, French firm Sud-Est turned back to the “trolley dolly” concept to create the Sud-Est SE.5000.
The aircraft took its first flight on Aug. 1, 1953. It was superb — trolley take-offs proved effortless and skid landings a delight even in crosswinds. It could be rapidly re-armed and re-fueled and would have made an excellent tactical fighter.
If required, the trolley could even have been rocket-assisted! But the “jet dirtbike” never made it into service as a new generation of concrete-loving warplanes left it far behind.
In the early 1950s, the U.S. Air Force wanted a turbojet-powered heavy strategic bomber to lug atomic bombs across oceans. Convair had built the piston-engine B-36 for the Air Force and decided that simply swapping out the B-36’s prop motors for jets — among other modest changes — would suffice to produce a winning new bomber.
The result was the YB-60, a 171-foot-long monster of a warplane sporting eight J57 turbojets. The first of two prototypes took off on its inaugural flight in April 1952. The YB-60 could fly 2,900 miles at a cruising speed of 467 miles per hour while lugging a 36 tons of bombs.
Impressive, sure — but not as impressive as the performance of the YB-60’s most direct competitor, Boeing’s B-52. The eight-engine B-52 cruises at 525 miles per hour over a distance of 4,500 miles while carrying 35 tons of bombs.
The Air Force cancelled the YB-60s’ test program in January 1953. B-52s remain in the U.S. inventory.
In 1955, the U.S. Navy and Air Force approached Bell Aircraft Corporation with a far-out idea — design a Mach-two fighter capable of launching and landing vertically. Bell dutifully drew up a design for what it unofficially called the XF-109.
Fifty-nine feet long, the XF-109 featured a startling eight J85 jet engines — four afterburning motors arranged two apiece in rotating wingtip nacelles, plus another two afterburners in the rear fuselage and a pair of non-afterburning J85s pointing downward behind the cockpit.
With distinct rearward- and downward-blasting powerplants, the XF-109’s basic form is not dissimilar to that of the F-35B supersonic jump jet that Lockheed Martin designed for the U.S. Marine Corps 40 years later.
But the XF-109 was clearly ahead of its time. The Navy and Air Force both lost interest and the military cancelled the Bell jump jet in 1961 before the company could build any actual prototypes. The Harrier, the world’s first operational vertical-takeoff-and-landing fighter, flew for the first time in 1967. The Harrier is subsonic.
In January 1961, Lockheed’s legendary airplane-designer Kelly Johnson delivered an unsolicited proposal to the U.S. Air Force. His idea was to take the Mach-3 A-12 spy plane — the predecessor of the iconic SR-71 Blackbird — that Kelly had designed for the CIA and modify it into a very fast strategic bomber. More or less in parallel, Johnson was working on a missile-armed F-12 fighter version of the A-12. A YF-12 prototype is picture above.
The Air Force liked the RB-12 Mach-3 bomber idea but counter-proposed with a slightly altered design it called the RS-12. Take the A-12’s sled-like titanium airframe with its powerful J58 turbojets. Add a sophisticated, long-range radar and a nuclear-tipped air-to-ground missile based on the AIM-47 air-to-air missile that also armed the F-12.
The plan was for the RS-12 to penetrate Soviet air space at Mach 3.2 and 80,000 feet and fire a single missile from 50 miles away, striking within 50 feet of its aimpoint within a Soviet city.