The five fantastic flying machines from the Pentagon

Published 5 October 2010

DARPA has given a Maryland-based company $3 million to develop a flying Humvee; the Pentagon’s restless research arm has an impressive track record when it comes to audacious flying machine ideas — some of which have never made it off the drawing board, while others are still being pursued

DARPA, the Pentagon’s intellectually restless research arm, announced a couple of weeks ago that it had selected a company to design an airborne Humvee. Hunt Valley, Maryland-based AAI Corp., which has a concept for a combined gyrocoptor-jeep, is receiving about $3 million from the DARPA to work on the idea, and Lockheed Martin is expected to be awarded a similar amount soon for a competing flying Humvee design.

Sharon Weinberger writes for AOL News that that it is not clear whether the Pentagon have a fleet of flying Humvees any time soon. Not all ideas for aircraft make it off the drawing board and into production. She offers a list of five recent push-the-envelope aircraft projects sponsored by the Pentagon which are indicative of DARPA’s audacity.

1. Flying Humvee. The formal name for this Jetsons-like project is Transformer, because the apparatus is supposed to transform itself from land vehicle to aircraft (“DARPA unveils details of Transformer TX flying car,” 14 April 2010 HSNW). The goal of the project sounds impossibly ambitious: Build a fully automated four-seat military vehicle that can leave the road and fly into the air at the first sign of danger. It follows on a century’s worth of work on building flying cars.

Status: Ongoing.

2. Flying submarine. DARPA’s plan for a submersible aircraft envisions combining a submarine with an aircraft (“Pentagon interested in submersible aircraft,” 24 October 2008 HSNW). The idea “calls for a stealthy aircraft that can fly low over the sea until it nears its target, which could be an enemy ship, or a coastal site such as a port,” New Scientist reports. “It will then alight on the water and transform itself into a submarine that will cruise under water to within striking distance, all without alerting defenses.”

Status: Ongoing.

3. Flying Wing. This concept for a tailless aircraft was also sponsored by DARPA. Such an aircraft “would vary its wing sweep, which is the angle of the wing’s leading edge relative to the direction of flight,” Aerospace Daily & Defense Report writes of the conceptual aircraft. “At low speeds the wing sweep would be kept relatively low and at high speeds the wing would be highly swept to reduce supersonic wave drag.”

Status:Canceled in 2008.

4. Blackswift. Weinberger writes that the idea was to build a hypersonic vehicle, called Blackswift, that could take off and land like a regular aircraft. Previous efforts to build an aircraft that can reach hypersonic speeds — over several times the speed of sound — have proved to be a tremendous undertaking. The last serious attempt, called the National Aerospace Plane, was ended in 1993.

Status: Canceled.

5. Marines in space. Though mocked by some, the idea of a Marine Corps space plane managed at one point to get some Pentagon funding. The idea was to build a suborbital spacecraft that could transport Marines anywhere in the world within two hours.

Status: The project is not getting any formal military funding at the moment, but supporters have put together a technology roadmap.