Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are disc-shaped aircraft behind UFO sightings?

This is a reasonable question, one asked again in a recent post on The Cryptozoologist. After all, experimental aircraft have taken on a lot of odd shapes over the past 70 years or so, since the science of aerodynamics became less guesswork and more engineering in the years before World War II.  You can find plenty of Internet claims and speculation about German disc-shaped aircraft, and all the other major powers had their experimental planes too, some of them very weird.  But to stand in for "flying saucers" in the postwar world requires high performance as well as striking appearance, and I don't think it happened.

The reasons I discount disc-shaped aircraft, beyond the occasional experimental vehicle, is that the aerodynamics stink. They're hard to control. As with a flying wing, you are spreading the aerodynamic effects over this huge surface, much of it far away (relatively) from the ailerons and other control surfaces that give it direction. I don't believe for a moment the Nazis or anyone else developed a high-performance disc in the 1940s-1990s. That said, the sophisticated digital controls and other advances in the B-2 era might, I think, allow you to develop a high-performance disc today, but it would be a big investment for no real return unless getting the disc shape was the entire purpose of the project: payload would still be minimal. The exception would be if you got away from the jet propulsion system into some kind of propulsion that delivered thrust evenly around the disc (you can do that with jets, but the complexity and weight penalties will kill you, and the Coanda effect mentioned by some of the Nazi buffs is real but even less efficient.) "Revelations" by "insiders" about German or American disc aircraft never try to explain the engineering of the thing.
For those who are curious, I did try to come up with a practical disc in fiction: Send me an email if you'd like to read my story "The Old-Fashioned Way."


Clark said...

There was a great article in Fortean Times called "Flight of Fantasy" [September 2000 Issue#137 pp. 34-9] that in my opinion gives the definitive debunking of Kenneth Arnolds' 1947 sighting of flying "saucers". Arnold first used the term "saucer" to describe their motion (as skipping like a saucer on water) and only later to describe their shape. Arnold mistakenly thought that his momentary loss of sight of the UFOs was due to their passing behind a 10,000 foot peak, but they actually passed in front of it. This resulted in him judging the distance as greater and the size as greater. His description otherwise exactly fits that of the American White Pelican according to professional ornithologists; they have the flight characteristics and shape he described of a crescent with a bat like concavity ("Arnold:’ somewhat bat shaped"). This author also found that the earliest wing shaped military crafts were not built early enough. At most only one such craft existed, while Arnold saw a whole formation.

Matt Bille said...

I've always thought Arnold was mistaken, but there are various theories about what he did see. There are puzzling UFO reports, but they are precisely that, "unidentified." Jenny Randles, I think, coined the term "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena," which is more scientific: an unidentified pheonomenon seen in the sky might not technically be Flying or an Object.