10 Ugliest Aircraft in Aviation History

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While the jet era heralded the rise of super-sleek airframes, many awkward designs have also leaped off the drawing board. The F-4 Phantom, for example, was referred to as the “Flying Hot Dog,” reportedly more aerodynamic backward than forward in wind-tunnel tests. Air and ground crews even gave nicknames to the B-52 Stratofortress, known as the BUFF (“Big Ugly Fat Fellow,” or insert expletive) and the A-7 Corsair (Slow Ugly Fellow), due to their ungainly appearance. But those well-known models, although not exactly sleek, can’t match the following aircraft for sheer ugliness.


10. VZ-9 AvroCar

Two models of the flying-saucer-like Avrocar were built. Credit: Bzuk

Given all those reports of flying saucers in the late 1940s and 1950s, perhaps it’s no surprise the Air Force decided to test its own version of a saucer. In the late 1950s, the U.S. Air Force commissioned a Canadian firm, Avro Aircraft, to build the VZ-9 AvroCar. It used the principle of the Coandă effect for lift and thrust. In tests the AvroCar was unstable, overheated easily, and ultimately proved to be impractical. Although the USAF canceled the program in late 1961, the U.S. Army also considered the project for field transport use.


9. E/LM-2075 Phalcon

The Phalcon’s funny-looking nose serves a purpose. © Micha Sender

Designed for the Israeli Air Force around a standard Boeing 747 air frame, the E/LM-2075 Phalcon looks like something out of a cartoon, with a drooping, bulging nose. Introduced in 1994, the Phalcon is an early warning flying command and control post analogous to the U.S. Air Force’s AWAC surveillance aircraft. The bulbous nose contains a large L-band radar. Although Israel has since retired the Phalcon in favor of the EL/W-2085 and -2090 aircraft, the Chilean Air Force continues to operate the platform.


8. Stipa-Caproni

The barrel-shaped Stipa-Caproni was basically a huge open-ended tube.

First taking flight in Italy in 1932, the Stipa-Caproni was an experimental barrel-shaped aircraft. The brainchild of Luigi Stipa, the entire aircraft was a single, huge ducted fan, with a propeller mounted inside an open-ended tube running the length of the body. The idea sought to exploit Bernoulli’s principle of aerodynamic lift and drag to make the engine more efficient. Although the plane never saw mass production, Stipa’s design proved prescient, as it was incorporated in the first jet engines just a decade later.


7. XF-85 Goblin

The XF-85 was designed as a “parasite fighter” capable of dropping out of another aircraft. Credit: USAF

A bizarre, guppy-shaped aircraft, the XF-85 Goblin was conceived in the late 1940s as a “parasite fighter.” Plans called for the XF-85 to deploy and be recovered via a trapeze mounted under a B-36 bomber. It would supposedly provide long-range bomber fleets with air defense, as ground-based fighters lacked the range, and air refueling was in its infancy. Two XF-85 Goblins were built, and although the concept was demonstrated, officials canceled the project in 1949.


6. Boeing X-32

The Boeing X-32 has been likened to a flying cockroach. Credit: USAF

Resembling a flying cockroach, the Boeing X-32 was one of two competing designs created in the 1990s for a new Joint Strike Fighter for the U.S. military. Sporting stubby wings, a huge scoop intake, and vertical takeoff and landing capability, the X-32 first flew in September 2000. But the X-32 ultimately lost the fighter competition to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.


5. Kalinin K-7

The Kalinin K-7 was not an attractive aircraft (top), but it was nowhere near as bizarre looking as the hoax images that have surfaced on the Internet (bottom).

The Kalinin K-7 was rather odd looking, but not nearly as strange as the hoax photos circulating on the Internet showing this monstrous plane with battleship turrets, huge cannons and other weird features. Designed in the early 1930s, this Russian plane was quite large: With a wingspan of almost 174 feet, a civilian version would have carried 120 passengers and would have even included seating inside its 7-foot, 7-inch thick wings. One prototype was built and carried out seven test flights in late 1933 before crashing.


4. Vought V-173

Charles Lindbergh once flew the Vought V-173 and praised its handling.

Dubbed the “Flying Pancake,” the Vought V-173 was a proof-of-concept aircraft featuring a disc-shaped wing and body design with a low-aspect lift ratio. The V-173 also overcame induced drag on traditional aircraft caused by wingtips. One V-173 was built at the height of U.S. involvement in World War II in 1942, and even celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh once piloted the aircraft, noting how well it handled at low speeds. Despite initial success, the V-173 suffered from vibration problems and last flew in March 1947.


3. Transavia PL-12 Airtruk

The Transavia Airtruk earned the nickname ”The Flying Jalopy.” © RuthAS

The Australia-based Transavia Corp. produced 118 of these tiny aircraft from 1966 to 1993. Although the Airtruk weighs just over a ton empty, it could carry nearly its own weight in cargo, or even passengers on its lower split deck. Strange to watch in flight, the Airtruk was primarily used as an agricultural aircraft, but it also saw use as an aerial ambulance, rescue and spotter aircraft. Three airworthy Airtruks remain in use in New Zealand, Australia and Serbia, and a modified Airtruk was used in the 1985 movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Not a bad pedigree for a plane nicknamed ”The Flying Jalopy.”


2. Airbus Beluga

The Airbus Beluga sports the distinctive profile of a dolphin or whale. © Laurent Errera

This aircraft’s official name is the Airbus Super Transporter, but its bizarre appearance, resembling a bottle-nosed dolphin or whale, earned it the nickname Beluga, after the whale. Airbus produced five A300-600ST Belugas between 1992 and 1999. With a main-deck cargo volume of 1,400 square meters, the Beluga dwarfs the C-5 Galaxy, and is outdone only by Russia’s massive An-225. The Beluga is used to transport components for the International Space Station, satellite and rocket payloads, and the fuselages of other aircraft. NASA flies a relative of the Beluga, the aging Super Guppy aircraft.


1. Dornier/Lippisch Aerodyne

Military officials hoped the Dornier-Lippisch Aerodyne could serve as an early drone plane. © Baier

A “wingless airplane,” the Dornier/Lippisch Aerodyne was one of the many strange and innovative designs conceived by Alexander Lippisch. A German aircraft engineer, Lippisch designed the Komet rocket interceptor and a tailless version of the Messerschmitt 329 jet fighter for the German Luftwaffe. Like rocket designer Warner von Braun, Lippisch was brought to the United States after World War II during Operation: Paperclip. The wingless Aerodyne was a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft using a single huge ducted fan. The Aerodyne was far ahead of its time, as designers hoped to use it as an unpiloted reconnaissance drone. Test flights of the single Aerodyne built by Dornier Flugzeugwerke were carried out in 1972.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.