The World's Worst Aircraft Selection
I had a birthday recently, and somebody gave me a book called The World’s Worst Aircraft. There are, it turns out, at least three books with that name, though you would suppose that one, or possibly even none, would have been enough. The project of identifying a distinct group of “worst” aircraft labors under the same curse as those idiotic People magazine nominations of the sexiest man or woman in the world. To start with, sexiness is a completely subjective and indefinable standard; then, you know they didn’t check out all of the men or women in the world; and if they had, it is impossible that there would not be at least a three-way — if not a three-million-way — tie.
So it is with “worst” aircraft. There are no fixed standards; most of the truly hopeless specimens have sunk without a trace; and it is impossible to say why an airplane that made the list is distinctly worse than many that didn’t. The author of the book I received dismisses his project as a mere lark, good just for laughs. He is too kind.
Clearly uncomfortable with some of his own choices, my author camouflages his confusion with historical-sounding commentary that is often as far off base as the designs he mocks. In his introduction, for example, he describes McDonnell Douglas as having “blood on its hands” because of several famous DC-10 crashes, but he blames those on “sloppy maintenance,” not “design defects.” Actually, what was conspicuous about some of the big DC-10 disasters was precisely that they were due to design defects. In his chapter on the Langley Aerodrome, which plunged ignominiously into the Potomac nine days before the Wrights made their first flight, he declares it incapable of flight only a few paragraphs after reporting that a quarter-scale model had flown successfully. It’s true that models often perform better than their full-scale counterparts, usually because of larger power-to-weight ratios. But that Langley’s big tandem-wing was “incapable of flight” is really a stretch, especially given that Glenn Curtiss later flew one only slightly modified.
The author often deploys knowledge that he does not possess. He includes the Fokker D.V with its “Oberosel powerplant” (he means Oberursel) in his list, characterizing it as “dreadful” and “difficult to fly, with horn-balanced ailerons on a swept upper wing and inadequate tail surfaces.” Actually, those features were neither unusual nor bad; indeed, A. R. Weyl’s deeply researched biography of Fokker reports that on Oct. 11, 1916, the D.V was recommended by the German aircraft inspectorate for production “as a promising type with very good flying qualities.”
Similarly, the Bell P-39 Airacobra makes the cut. Small, sleek and fast, with a mid-mounted engine and tricycle gear, the Airacobra, designed in 1937, was ahead of its time, but it was hampered by too little wingspan and the lack of a proper supercharger. The latter, like many of the shortcomings that have plagued military airplanes, was the result of procurement rather than design decisions. Almost 10,000 were built. If the Airacobra was no match for the light and agile Japanese Zero in the Pacific theater, it was well armored and fast at low level and served well enough in Africa and Russia in ground attack and aerial support roles. It scarcely deserves to be classed among the world’s worst airplanes.