The World's Worst Aircraft Selection

Is any airplane really all bad?

Technicalities Bristol Brabazon

Technicalities Bristol Brabazon

** The Bristol Brabazon: eight engines, a
230-foot wing and going nowhere.**

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.

The author himself sometimes can't seem to make up his mind whether an airplane is bad or actually, perhaps, pretty good. The inclusion of the Blohm & Voss BV 141 exemplifies this ambivalence. The 141 was a single-engine reconnaissance and ground-attack airplane that the company submitted to a 1937 competition it had not been invited to join; it lost out to a Focke-Wulf proposal. Asymmetrical, with an off-center uninhabited fuselage, a big glass-enclosed pod to the right of it housing the crew of three, and a horizontal stabilizer that projected only to the left of the fin to give the gunner a clearer field of fire, it was certainly a daring design. The author makes a comedy of it, with the obtuse Germans refusing to "appropriate a single pfenning" (meaning Pfennig) for its production, and the British clutching their sides with laughter. Actually, this was not the most unconventional design to be considered by the Luftwaffe, whose appetite for innovation far exceeded that of any Allied air arm, and the reasons for the 141's rejection, in spite of its pleasant flying qualities, good performance and the patronage of World War I ace and Luftwaffe bigwig Ernst Udet, probably had relatively little to do with its peculiar appearance. The author calls the 141, which he admits was reliable and "remarkably aerodynamic," "the most asymmetrical airplane ever flown," evidently forgetting the even more extreme Rutan Boomerang.

While some of the airplanes here are truly grotesque, many achieve a sort of splendor even in failure. A couple of giant American transports, the Constellation-based Lockheed Constitution and the Convair XC-99, a B-36 with the bomber's slender fuselage replaced by a huge double-decker sausage — perhaps it was the world's Wurst airplane — arrived, like Howard Hughes' idiosyncratic "Spruce Goose," too late for use in World War II. The Convair remained for a long time the largest transport ever built. The single prototype logged 7,400 hours between 1947 and its retirement 10 years later and hauled 60 million pounds of cargo for the Air Force — not, by any measure, a total failure.

One of the most impressive machines in the book is the Bristol Brabazon,a vast — 230-foot span — assemblage of graceful curves and design missteps. Oddly, the project was first conceived during World War II, when you would have thought the British had other things on their minds. The airplane was designed and built during a postwar period filled with uncertainties. Reciprocating engines had grown to daunting size and complexity without much increasing their output, while jets and turboprops were still in their infancy but evolving rapidly. The form that postwar air travel would take was unclear. At such a time, the long-term decisions involved in creating an airliner were particularly difficult to make.

Bombarded with riddles, the designers of the Brabazon got almost every answer wrong. The “Brab” started off as an 80-passenger luxury liner powered by eight Centaurus sleeve-valve radials of nearly 3,000 hp each buried, like the engines of the B-36 bomber, inside the thick wing and driving four sets of contra-rotating propellers. At a cruising speed of around 250 knots, it would take a while to make the London-New York run, and with this, and perhaps the Queen Mary, in mind, the designers assigned each passenger 200 cubic feet of living space, a luxury that would make modern first-class travelers envious. Turboprops eventually replaced the radials, but the project already “wreaked,” as the apparently un-proofread book puts it, of obsolescence. A poultice for Britain’s wounded vanity, the one Brab ever completed was eventually cut up, like the Empire, for scrap.

What the book’s flippant commentary fails to evoke is the paradoxical grandeur even of disasters like the Brabazon. Airplanes are not mere toys. However misconceived, they come into being trailing clouds of glory. Many men and women devoted themselves for years to the Brabazon, to its beautiful lines, to its staggering size, to its structural and systems innovations, to the sunlit vision of it some day soaring stately over the Atlantic. Every new airplane — even a bad one — is the love of someone’s life. The affair may end in disappointment, but we should not belittle the passion that once was there.

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