The Army’s Quest for a Flying Jeep
The history of aviation is like a beauty contest. For every winner there have been countless losers, promising contenders that had most of the right stuff but failed to make the final grade. Take for example the Army’s search for a practical vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft. The helicopter and, later, jet fighters like the Harrier were chosen to serve this purpose. What many don’t know, however, is that the military considered other types of VTOL vehicles back in the '50s and '60s. One of the most interesting of these was the so-called “flying Jeep.” The term refers to not one but rather three prototypes built by a trio of competitors. The first was Chrysler’s VZ-6. It was powered by a 500-horsepower reciprocating engine that drove propellers on the front and rear of the craft. It achieved forward propulsion by dipping the craft’s nose and deflecting some of the airflow horizontally. The Army took delivery of two VZ-6 models in 1958 and began test flights the next year. Things did not go well; during one test the VZ-6 flipped over in mid-air and crashed. Luckily, the pilot escaped serious injury, but the problems ruined Chrysler’s chances of winning a production contract. RELATED: The 1952 Willys M38 Military Jeep is All Kinds of Cool
The second entrant was the Curtiss-Wright VZ-7. Of all the prototypes, it looked the most like a conventional helicopter. It included four separate propellers, two mounted on the rear of the vehicle and the other pair near the front. The pilot sat ahead of the rotors. Despite being powerful and stable, the Army passed on the craft and returned it to Curtiss-Wright. One example exists to this day as part of the United States Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
The third entrant, Piasecki Aircraft VZ-8, was also the most successful. Like Chrysler’s model, it featured two large propellers placed forward and aft of the pilot’s seat. Pilots loved the vehicle, which offered a top speed of 85 mph and a service ceiling of nearly 3,000 feet. The VZ-8 could hover just above the ground and under sheltering trees, putting it out of sight of observers.
The VZ-8 came close to winning official approval. In the end, though, the military dropped the idea of a flying Jeep altogether in favor of using helicopters. The test vehicles developed for the contest ended up as footnotes in the annals of history. But that’s show business; for every star there are a million also rans. And so life goes on.
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