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The X-13 Vertijet: The Strangest Flying Aircraft You’ve Seen All Year

Written by on Friday, July 6th, 2012

It’s easy to take the runway for granted. These humble stretches of tarmac might seem bland and unremarkable, but they provide part of the infrastructure that modern aircraft need in order to take off and land. Without them, air travel as we know it would be virtually impossible.

That’s why the USAF has had such a love affair with vertical take-off and landing capabilities. Aircraft that could land or take off from anywhere would completely do away with the need for long and difficult-to-build runways in hostile territory. A number of different aircraft, such as helicopters and harrier jets, have been created out of this need.

Of course, mankind didn’t invent thrust vectoring, the technology needed to achieve vertical/short take-offs and landings (V/STOL) in jets, overnight. It took a few wrong turns and bungled prototypes to get us from the Wright Brothers’ first plane to the state-of-the-art F-35B.

The X-13 Vertijet is one such speed bump on the road (or should I say “jet stream?”) to V/STOL technology. Rather than using thrust vectoring, they simply upended the Vertijet with the intention of letting it take off like a space ship.

Back in the 1950s, scientists at the Ryan Aeronautical Company wondered it if it would be possible to modify one of their aircraft to achieve a vertical take-off. Their FR-1 Fireball had a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1 when it was low on fuel, which meant that it could exert the exact same amount of thrust as the force of gravity pulling it downward. All they had to do was improve that ratio a bit and they’d have a vertical take-off aircraft.

The US military was fully on board, because they buying valium wanted to know if it would be possible to launch one of these vertical aircraft out of a submarine. After all, we regularly launch aircraft off of aircraft carriers, so why not take it one step further?

Rather than keeping the aircraft flat and level, their idea was to orient the jet vertically (hence the name) so that it would both take off and land with its engines pointed at the ground. This idea sounds incredibly misguided when you look at it on paper, but the amazing thing was that it worked.

This jet took off from a vertical position on the ground, transitioned to horizontal flight in the air, and then reoriented to a vertical position before slowly descending to Earth. Quite frankly, I have no idea how any pilot managed to land the Vertijet like that. Driving a car in reverse is difficult enough — could you imagine trying to back a jet into garage?

Ryan Corporation then took the Vertijet to D.C. to show it off, but afterwards the US military made an unexpected move: they cancelled the project. Despite the aircraft’s impressive performance, the military felt that the Vertijet did not meet one of the critical operation requirements, though it’s also possible that the cost of engineering and flying these complicated machines was just too unreasonable. Thus, only two X-13 Vertijets, the prototypes, were ever made.

But the good news is that you can still check out either one of these planes. The first Vertijet is on display at the Gillespie Field Annex of the San Diego Air & Space Museum. The second is in the Research and Development section of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.


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