Goodyear made a plane that you had to inflate before flying
In the 1950s, Good year had a concept for some kind of aircraft that some thought was unlikely. Designed as a way for pilots in distress to extricate themselves from behind enemy lines, the Inflatoplane was a rubber plane that could be dropped from a box, inflated in just five minutes, and then flown to safety.
This amazing plane was sent in by a reader and I’m amazed we only made passing mention of it. I’ll change that right away as this is a wild piece of aviation history.
The concept of rubber planes dates back a century, as aviators have long been seduced by the idea of an aircraft that does not kill its occupants in a crash. In 1931, HistoryNet RemarksTaylor McDaniel would go on to patent what is believed to be the first inflatable airplane.
McDaniel’s plane was a glider and its first six flights were on January 4. It flew again the following week for the press and on a second test flight it hit the ground. The glider was left intact as its wing deflected on impact. The damage? A broken wire. With McDaniel’s creation, the concept was set and would be retried over and over again.
The Russians and the British both tried their own inflatable planes. Although both worked, neither project took off.
That leaves us with Goodyear Aircraft Corporation. In 1956, four years after McDaniel’s death, the company designed and built 12 Inflatoplanes in 12 weeks, Remarks the Smithsonian.
To improve structural stability, Inflatoplanes used Goodyear’s Airmat which consisted of joined layers of inflatable rubber-coated nylon fabric formed by thousands of nylon threads. This made a building material that was not only light, but strong enough to work for an airplane. The fuselage was constructed of airship fabric with reinforced areas for landing gear and a pilot’s seat.
The first Inflatoplane, GA-33, was a single-seat model similar to the McDaniel glider. Favorable test results led to the improvement of GA-447.
This received a new wing and was used for landing gear testing. This would lead to the GA-468, which had some awesome specs for an inflatable:
The plane was rolled out like a wheelbarrow and inflated in about 5 minutes using less air pressure than a car tire. The 40 hp Nelson two-stroke engine had to be hand-started and held 20 gallons of fuel.
The Inflatoplane carried a maximum weight of 240 pounds, had a range of 390 miles, and a range of 6.5 hours. Its cruising speed was 60 mph. The grass takeoff distance was 250 feet with 575 feet needed to clear a 50 foot obstacle. He landed 350 feet on grass. The rate of climb was 550 feet per minute. Its service ceiling was estimated at 10,000 feet.
An Inflatoplane could even take gunfire as the motor also worked to keep the craft inflated. And when the flight was over, it could be stored in a 44 cubic foot crate, small enough to fit on a Jeep trailer or in the back of some cars.
Later, a two-seater was built with a 60 HP engine, an estimated service ceiling of 16,000 feet, and a cruise speed of 70 mph. The rubber plane looked promising and soon the idea was introduced to the public for recreational purposes. It was true until they started falling apart.
The Akron Beacon Log details the two crashes that finally challenged the whole program:
The Ulm pilot narrowly escaped death in April 1959 when the plane crashed into the Patuxent River during a test flight in Maryland. The wing collapsed and struck the propeller, forcing Ulm to bail out with a parachute to safety.
Two months later, disaster struck Wingfoot Lake.
Army Lt. Malcolm Wallace, 26, of Greenville, Texas, was training on an Inflatoplane when it began to spiral out of control at about 700 feet.
“The engine sounded like it was going to fail,” witness William Church told the Beacon Journal. “Then the plane went into a spin and the left wing appeared to deflate. The pilot stayed with the plane for a while and then jumped off.
Wallace didn’t have time to open his parachute. He dove to his death in a marshy area near the lake.
Suddenly, the Inflatoplane seemed less revolutionary and more questionable.
Like the Mustard video above Remarks, there were already doubts that an inflatable plane was really a good way to extract a downed pilot. After all, they should be flying in the same area where they were shot down, but in a slower, weaker plane. Eventually, helicopters became the tool for rescuing trapped airmen, anyway.
The Inflatoplane was canceled in 1973. Only 12 were built with only three surviving today. The plane was a weird idea that had a proven track record, but it never quite caught on.