Cold War, Two Minute Read

SNECMA Atar Volant – Pushing the Boundaries of Design

Ever since the Wright brothers made their historic flight in 1903, advancements in aviation technology have come in leaps and bounds. One such radical development, though often overlooked, is the SNECMA Atar Volant.

This futuristic creation is a testament to the bold, innovative spirit of engineers and scientists, who dared to dream beyond conventional aircraft designs.

The SNECMA Atar Volant, translated to “flying star,” is a unique experimental flying platform developed by the French aircraft engine company, SNECMA.

The design was part of a broader research trend in the 1950s and 1960s, which sought to expand the understanding of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) technology.

Designing the Future

The Atar Volant was essentially a ‘flying saucer,’ a jet-powered platform designed to carry a single pilot. Its primary design objective was to explore the viability of a new kind of flight mode: VTOL.

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The VTOL capability promised significant military advantages, as it would allow for operations in tight spaces without the need for conventional runways. This could potentially include quick-deployment scenarios, special operations, reconnaissance missions, and more.

Moreover, the Atar Volant was part of a broader trend in the exploration of unconventional aircraft designs during the 1950s and 1960s.

Nord 1500 Griffon II's large intake.
The Nord Griffon was another unusual French creation. Image by Clemens Vasters CC BY 2.0.

The era was marked by extensive experimentation in aviation technology, driven by the onset of the Cold War and the accompanying arms race.

The Atar Volant was one of several VTOL concepts under development during this period, with various nations exploring their designs.

However, the Atar Volant faced several design and control challenges, mainly due to its inherent instability.

Balancing the platform was a significant issue, with the jet engine’s thrust having to be meticulously managed to maintain steady flight. Moreover, controlling the machine’s direction was another complex task.

In spite of these challenges, the Atar Volant made several tethered flights, which helped in gathering valuable data and improving the understanding of VTOL technology. Although the project never advanced beyond the experimental stage, it was a significant step in exploring VTOL capabilities.

The project was centred around SNECMA’s highly successful Atar series of jet engines.

Specifically, the Atar 101, initially designed for the Dassault Mirage III fighter jet, was modified to have its thrust redirected downwards to lift the platform off the ground.

The VTOL craft was based on the Atar 101.
The VTOL craft was based on the Atar 101.

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Bold Aspirations, Significant Challenges

The development of the Atar Volant began in the mid-1950s, in the wake of the growing interest in VTOL capabilities. A successful VTOL platform would offer immense strategic advantages, particularly in military contexts.

The ability to take off and land vertically would allow for operations in confined spaces, without the need for traditional runways.

However, the project was riddled with difficulties from the onset. Balancing the platform was a significant challenge.

To combat this, the Atar Volant was initially equipped with small stabilizing fins, and later designs included gyroscopic stabilizers. Still, controlling the machine proved to be a complex task.

The Legacy of the Atar Volant

Despite facing numerous challenges, the Atar Volant took to the skies for the first time in 1956, with Auguste Morel, a SNECMA test pilot, at the controls.

Though the maiden flight was tethered to prevent a potential accident, it demonstrated that the concept of a jet-powered platform could indeed work.

While the Atar Volant never advanced beyond the experimental stage, its development marked a significant step forward in VTOL technology.

The French Atar volant. Photo credit - CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Atar Volant. Photo credit – CC BY-SA 3.0.

Despite its inherent instability and limited practical applications, it represented a bold, imaginative approach to aircraft design that paved the way for later innovations in VTOL aircraft, including modern drones and tilt-rotor aircraft.

A Dream That Flew Beyond Its Time

The SNECMA Atar Volant stands as a testament to the audacity of human ingenuity. It was a product of its era, a time when the limits of technology and imagination were being pushed in ways previously undreamed of.

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Although the Atar Volant project was eventually shelved due to the insurmountable challenges it faced, the knowledge gained from its development undoubtedly contributed to the progress in aviation.

Its daring design continues to inspire aerospace engineers today, a reminder of a time when the sky was not the limit, but merely the beginning of the journey.

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