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The plane without wings: C.450 Coléoptère.

Avinash Menon Thursday, June 24, 2021
The plane without wings: C.450 Coléoptère.

When an image of a plane comes into our minds, most of us will think of a conventional plane that has two wings, and that many has flown on. Others might even think about jets, or other military aircrafts. However, there are other planes that refuse to abide by conventions. These are the kind of planes that we are often fascinated by, the kind that we want to learn more about, the kind that were made with unleashed creativity and potential. This is the story of the plane without wings: C.450 Coléoptère.

(The above image is a picture of the C.450 Coléoptère. This was a plane unlike many others and was considered the first VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft to be built. But this plane ended up being a massive failure. So, what was the story of the C.450?).

We know that conventional airplanes need runways to become airborne, accelerating till their wings generate enough lift to take off. The one way to reduce the length of a runway is to give a plane more power. We call these kinds of aircrafts VTOL (Vertical Take Off and landing) jets. These jets direct engine power downwards, so they have the ability to take off without runways.

In the 1950’s aircraft designers realized that with enough power, planes might not need runways at all. Instead of accelerating down a runway, they could be oriented towards the sky, and could use engine power alone to accelerate until their wings could produce enough lift. The emergence of more powerful engines gave rise to a new kind of category of experimental aircraft commonly known as tail sitters.

In any given conflict, runways were going to be the first target for enemy bombers. The destruction of allied runways could mean a huge defeat for air forces. But these tail sitting planes wouldn’t need runways. They could take off from small places and would be hidden.

In the early 1950’s, five years after World War 2 (WW2), the French aerospace firm SNECMA (Société nationale d'études et de construction de moteurs d’aviation) started producing wingless aircrafts to prove the viability of the tail sitting concept. During this time, the Americans also started building a tail-sitter plane. However, the SNECMA would take another leap further by building a tail-sitter aircraft with highly unconventional cylindrical wings. The cylindrical wing promised greater efficiency over a conventional wing by eliminating wing-tip vortices. It would also be more effective, as having an aircraft with cylindrical wings would need less space to take off. Many French designers also theorized that the cylindrical wings could be eventually engineered to a ramjet (a type of jet engine in which the air drawn in for combustion is compressed solely by the forward motion of the aircraft.). This could propel the aircraft to supersonic speeds beyond Mach 2.0.

In 1954, test rigs were built to prove the viability of tail sitting concepts. Getting a tail sitting plane to work required more than powerful engines. New control systems were needed to make vertical landings and take-offs possible. This was a daunting engineering challenge at that time. The French built their own prototype in 1959. It was called the “Snecma Atar Volant”. The Americans had also built their tail sitting prototypes. Some of them were the Lockheed XFV and the Ryan X-13 Vert jet. The C.450 Coléoptère jet was not considered to be an aircraft; the engine was to be surrounded with a ten-and-a-half-foot diameter cylindrical wing.

To control the aircraft from take-off and landing, thrust would be vectored using deflecting vanes situated in the engine’s exhaust. During forward flight, its triangular winglets would provide directional control, and to help the jet transition back to horizontal flight, small retractable fins would deploy on the nose of the fuselage (the body of the aircraft, in this case, the tip of the aircraft.). Nevertheless, landing the C.450 Coléoptère would be a challenge, when the pilots look back at the ground, they would have to look back at their shoulders. So, designers innovated a cockpit with a seat that could swivel 90 degrees to remain upright.

With this, the C.450 Coléoptère would look like a plane straight out of science fiction. But as an aircraft being designed in the 1950’s long before computer stimulants, daring test pilots would have to play just as much of a role as engineers in getting the plane to work.

The C.450 Coléoptère began test flights in April of 1959. By May, the Coléoptère had proven its ability to even hover off ground for a few minutes. It had even flown up to an altitude of 800 meters. This machine gained fame in France and all around the world.

However, as with most novel designs, flaws soon emerged.

Without conventional wings, the Coléoptère could not counter rolling tendencies, so the jet slowly spun on its axis during hover. With the cockpit situated on the top of a vertically oriented plane, pilots struggled to judge just how far they were from the ground. During emergency landing, conventional aircrafts could land without the help of an engine, unlike the Coléoptère, which always needed engines to land safely. The French still remained confident and believed that these flaws were soon to be fixed.

(An advantage to the cylindrical wing concept (top right) and some of the flaws in the Coléoptère.).

By July of 1959, engineers were ready to do the most challenging procedure of transition from vertical to conventional flight. It would be a pivotal moment for the program. On July 25 the Coléoptère lifted off vertically, but during its transition, it suddenly became too inclined and began to lose altitude and speed too. The plane started tumbling back to the ground, and the pilot inside the Coléoptère struggled to regain control and managed to eject just in time. Just in an instant, the prototype was destroyed, and development suddenly ground to a halt.

To continue, the program would need to secure additional funding to build the second prototype, but the funding would never materialize, because the Coléoptère would be the last major effort at building a tail sitting aircraft. By the 1960’s the Americans had abandoned development of building their own tail sitting aircrafts.

The development was a dead end; it had too much of a compromise when it came to range and payload, and far too dangerous to pilot. It turns out that directing engine exhaust rather than tilting the aircraft seemed a smarter, safer, and a more practical solution. Jets like the BAE Harrier II, Bell 65 ATV and the Bell Eagle Eye were jets that used VTOL to land and take-off. These planes were definitely much safer than the Coléoptère. VTOL jets like the BAE Harrier II, were heavily used in the Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina, so these jets were proven to be worthy.

With this, I hope that you got a taste of the potential and brilliance of aviation. Let us hope that the future carries more such flying wonders, produced by talented minds with astonishing levels of efficiency and practicality, that won’t cease to be a permanent source of wonder and inspiration.

References:

Youtube.com. 2021. [online] Available at: .

Lexico Dictionaries | English. 2021. RAMJET | Definition of RAMJET by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com also meaning of RAMJET. [online] Available at: .

Surau Online. 2021. A Plane Without Wings: The Story of The C.450 Coléoptère - Surau Online. [online] Available at: .

Avinash Menon
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Express your comment on this article

 
Avanija
Saturday, June 26, 2021
Fantastic article! Very informative and interesting. Looking forward to more such scientific articles.

Vineetha
Friday, June 25, 2021
Very interesting and informative article. Looking forward to even more scientific articles. Good job!

Avanija
Friday, June 25, 2021
Fantastic article! Very informative, thoroughly explained and well researched. Keep up the interest in aviation and continue writing more such articles.

Prakash
Friday, June 25, 2021
Very informative. Keep up the interest and explore more.

All the best.
Prakash

Ashok Hemmige
Friday, June 25, 2021
Dear Avinash,

Thanks very much for that interesting article.

I try to follow developments in aviation, but didn''t hear about this one.

Great to see your interest in the subject.
Am sure you have heard of Celera 500L from Otto Aviation.
Could be the next thing.

Wishing you the best!

Ashok Hemmige

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