The Inflatoplane from Goodyear was an unconventional aircraft developed by the Goodyear Aircraft Company, a branch of the renowned Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, also famed for the Goodyear blimp.
While the idea might seem outlandish, the actual aircraft successfully achieved its developmental goals.
The Inflatoplane could be compactly stored in a 44-cubic-foot container, making it transportable via truck, jeep trailer, or aircraft.
One potential application was to airlift this container behind enemy lines, allowing stranded pilots an opportunity for self-rescue. Both single-seat and two-seat versions underwent tests into the 1970s, though no orders materialized.
- Brazilian Jungle Post-World War I.
- Rubber Glider
- Soviet Union Naturally Have a Design
- The British Got in on the Act
- In Steps Goodyear
Brazilian Jungle Post-World War I
A total of twelve Inflatoplanes came into existence. Ambitious specifications were laid out for the single-seat model, known as the GA-468, boasting a service ceiling of 10,000 feet and a travel distance of 390 miles. It claimed an endurance of over six hours.
Inflation of the aircraft took roughly five minutes, after which the pilot would manually initiate the two-stroke engine. The dual-seat variant had a range of 275 miles.
The idea of constructing an airplane or glider from rubber, designed to bounce upon crash landing rather than shatter, has fascinated aviation engineers for a long time.
The earliest known endeavor to create and pilot an inflatable rubber glider, followed by a rubber-powered plane, emerged in the aftermath of a tragic crash in a Brazilian jungle post-World War I.
This mishap, which led to the demise of his friend and collaborator, spurred Taylor McDaniel to consider crafting a plane from inflatable rubber tubes to shield both passengers and pilot during accidents.
Upon returning to the United States, McDaniel diligently pursued his concept for several years, eventually securing a patent for an inflatable rubber tube glider. On January 4, 1931, this glider took to the skies twice.
After making some adjustments to the controls, Joseph P. Bergling, an adept glider pilot and a friend of McDaniel’s, piloted the glider for another four flights that very day.
A week later, on January 11, McDaniel organized another test flight, coupled with a media demonstration for newsreel agencies, journalists, and photographers.
With a truck providing the tow, the glider ascended to a height of 100 feet. However, during the flight, the pilot encountered some control issues but managed to land without incident.
Despite wanting to halt the demonstration and return the glider to his workshop for control system modifications, McDaniel was persuaded by a photographer, who had missed the previous landing, to make another attempt.
On this flight, the glider reached an altitude of approximately 80 feet before the pilot lost control. It resulted in the right wing striking the ground nearly vertically, causing it to fold. However, as the nose subsequently impacted the ground, the wing reverted to its original shape, leaving the glider largely unscathed.
The pilot emerged with minor injuries: a bruised heel and a twisted knee. Upon inspecting the crash site, it was determined that the accident caused the breakage of a single wire, translating to a mere 50 cents in damages.
McDaniel’s subsequent endeavor led him to create a bird-shaped inflatable rubber tube glider, primarily assembled from parts of his initial aircraft.
However, his progress was hampered by financial constraints. The onset of the Great Depression during 1931 and 1932 severely impacted the aviation industry, making it exceedingly difficult to secure funding for continued development.
Taylor McDaniel passed away in 1952 at 61, steadfast in his belief that his vision for an inflatable airplane was fundamentally viable.
Soviet Union Naturally Have a Design
In the Soviet Union, innovators built and piloted a glider made from a lightweight rubberized canvas, intending it for cost-effective delivery of supplies to Siberia.
A single large tow plane could haul three of these cargo-laden gliders to their destination.
Upon reaching their destination, the gliders would be released to land and offload their cargo.
Subsequently, these gliders could be deflated, packed into compact cases measuring 39 by 39 by 19.5 inches with a weight of just 169.4 pounds when loaded, and then transported back for reuse.
After the initial flights yielded positive results, the project leader, P.I. Grachowsky, started envisioning an advanced model. However, details regarding the project’s further developments remain obscure, as it seemingly didn’t feature prominently in the documented Soviet military annals.
Then The British Got in on the Act
In the early 1950s, British engineers aimed to design an aircraft that could be compactly stored in a deflated state on a submarine, truck, or tank.
The intention was to have a plane that would require minimal storage space and could be quickly inflated for tasks like reconnaissance and rescue operations.
Utilizing a superior rubberized fabric akin to that used in life rafts, the M.L. Aviation Company initiated flight tests for this innovative aircraft at Farnborough in 1955.
Dubbed the M.L. Light Aircraft Mark 1, this plane boasted a massive inflatable wing coated with rubber.
Beneath this wing, there was a modest wooden, box-shaped fuselage. The aircraft was equipped with tricycle landing gear, a two-seat cockpit, and was propelled by a 60-hp engine located at the rear.
The 40-foot wing of the aircraft lacked internal bracing, depending solely on air pressure to ensure its rigid aerodynamic shape.
Test pilots found the compact plane surprisingly easy to maneuver and it responded well in flight. Its controls were as simple as those on a motorcycle’s handlebars.
After use, the wing could be deflated, tucked into a bag, stored in the compact fuselage, and then hitched to a vehicle for transport.
Despite the promise it showed for both military and civilian applications, the project didn’t progress beyond its initial experimental phase.
In Steps Goodyear
The Inflatoplane, developed by the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation in 1956, stands out as the most triumphant iteration of the inflatable rubber aircraft idea.
Originating from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s Wingfoot Lake Airship Base near Akron, Ohio, this model, known as the GA-33, was conceptualized, fabricated, and airborne in just over 12 days.
Its wing, tail assembly, and seating for the pilot were crafted from Goodyear’s innovative Airmat fabric.
This material, a pioneering blend, was made up of layers of rubber-coated nylon fabric interconnected by numerous nylon threads. This intricate structure endowed the Airmat with one of the best strength-to-weight ratios compared to other construction materials.
The aircraft’s body was crafted from airship fabric, strengthened by fan-shaped patches of rubberized material.
These patches served as anchoring points for struts and metallic supports that linked the landing apparatus and the seating area for the pilot to the rest of the plane.
A 40-hp engine, positioned atop the wing in a typical tractor layout, drove the GA-33.
Additionally, an engine-fueled air compressor ensured the airplane remained inflated by providing the requisite low air pressure to sustain its rigidity.
Following the GA-33’s successful flight tests, Goodyear pursued a more refined model, known as the GA-447, with backing from the Office of Naval Research. This model underwent a comprehensive review process, including wind tunnel assessments at Virginia’s Langley Air Force Base.
Inflatoplane Test Results Were Impressive
The test outcomes were so remarkable that Goodyear produced an additional 10 Inflatoplanes, backed by the Army Transportation Corps and the Office of Naval Research.
This updated model was named the GA-468. Its engine was upgraded from 40-hp to 60-hp, providing enhanced takeoff capabilities.
Alongside structural enhancements, a multifunctional landing gear compatible with land, water, and snow was integrated into the GA-468, eliminating the need for any landing gear adjustments.
Additionally, Goodyear conceived a parachute-drop container for the deflated Inflatoplane, intending it to serve as an aerial rescue option for pilots stranded in enemy regions.
As the GA-468s underwent assessment, the Army Transportation Corps initiated work on a two-seater Inflatoplane.
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This final model, the GA-466, boasted a 60-hp engine and delivered a peak speed of 69 mph, with a travel distance of up to 230 miles.
Birth of the Inflatoplane
The primary objective of the Inflatoplane was to function as a rescue vehicle, capable of accommodating one or two individuals.
It was designed to be swiftly dispatched to stranded pilots, taken out of its package, inflated, and readied for flight within six minutes. Other envisioned applications included aerial reconnaissance and aiding ground missions.
The developmental and experimental phases showed encouraging results. In August 1959, Goodyear introduced designs for an advanced Inflatoplane with sleeker aerodynamics, powered by a 100-hp engine, featuring an enclosed cockpit, and equipped with four under-wing fuel tanks.
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However, in June 1959, a mishap occurred. An Army pilot, during the concluding 35 minutes of a mandated flight, subjected the Inflatoplane to extreme maneuvers not specified in the test plan.
As a result, the wing, being unduly stressed, bent into the propeller, creating a rupture and leading to the loss of air pressure.
Tragedy Struck Again
Tragically, during that test flight, Lt. “Pug” Wallace lost his life. The aircraft experienced a malfunction when a control cable beneath the wing got dislodged from its pulley, jamming the joystick.
This caused the plane to spiral uncontrollably until one wing folded, getting caught in the propeller. The subsequent air loss resulted in erratic wing movement, with an aluminum wing tip skid striking Lt. Wallace, as indicated by marks on his helmet.
He was then ejected from the aircraft, plummeting into a shallow lake. Unfortunately, he never deployed his parachute, possibly having been rendered unconscious by the earlier impact.
In late 1959, after the construction of several aircraft, Goodyear halted production and definitively abandoned the Inflatoplane project, as stated by a company representative.
The unique Airmat fabric integral to the Inflatoplane’s design is no longer manufactured by Goodyear.
An Inflatoplane now resides in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., while another can be found in the Franklin Museum in Philadelphia.
The inaugural GA-33 prototype Inflatoplane was gifted to the Ohio Museum of Flight at the International Airport in Columbus, Ohio. The journey of the aircraft to the museum remains shrouded in intrigue.
Inflatoplane Barber Airport in Alliance
Although it was intended for disposal in a landfill, it seemingly ended up at Barber Airport in Alliance, Ohio, discreetly stored in a hangar until its eventual donation to the museum.
With the museum now shut down, the GA-33 is stored somewhere in the vicinity of Columbus.
At Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake facility in Akron, Ohio, tests demonstrated that the aircraft could be inflated with a pressure as low as 8 psi (544 mbar), which is even lower than the pressure in a standard car tire.
However, the flight test program was marred by a tragic accident, resulting in the death of Army aviator Lt. “Pug” Wallace.
During a descending turn, a control cable beneath the wing became dislodged, causing the aircraft to lose control.
As the turn intensified, a wing folded over the propeller, getting severely damaged. The subsequent loss of air caused the wings to flap uncontrollably, leading to one of the wing’s aluminum tips striking the pilot’s helmet.
Wallace was thrown from the aircraft and plunged into a nearby shallow lake without his parachute deploying.
Only a dozen Goodyear Inflatoplanes were ever constructed, and despite ongoing development efforts, the initiative was discontinued in 1973.
I have yet to see one in the flesh as it were, but at the end of the Inflatoplane project, Goodyear gifted two of these unique aircraft to museums: one resides at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the other at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, an Inflatoplane can be viewed at the Stonehenge Air Museum in Fortine, Montana. Another example is safeguarded in the National Naval Aviation Museum’s storage in Pensacola, Florida, while a fifth is kept with the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, Ohio.