In 1953, the RCAF and British Intelligence held a top secret meeting in West Germany to investigate an enduring aviation myth. A German engineer had come forward claiming to have worked on a flying saucer for the Luftwaffe between 1944 and 1945. Avro Canada’s Chief Designer, John Frost, also attended the meeting and cross-examined the engineer. The engineer told Frost that the covert flying saucer achieved flight by generating a cushion of thrust between itself and the ground. After it was successfully tested, the saucer was destroyed, along with the drawings, to avoid capture by the Allies. History does not record what influence this meeting had on John Frost’s designs, but soon Avro Canada would construct its own top secret flying saucer.
John Frost first gained prominence as a designer with the de Havilland Aircraft Company in England during WWII, working on projects such as the Hornet and Vampire. After the war, Frost became interested in developing more efficient swept-back wings with the experimental DH-108 Swallow project. This development was cut short when, in 1946, a series of tragic jet crashes led de Havilland to switch production to commercial aircraft. Hoping to continue pushing the limits of aircraft speed and efficiency, Frost took a job as project designer with Avro Canada, helping to develop Canada’s first jet fighter, the CF-100 Canuck.
Frost’s work with swept-back wings had taught him that the shape of an aircraft influenced its potential speed more than the power of its engines. In 1951, Frost envisioned a totally new aircraft design – a disk – totally aerodynamic on every side. The Avro executives were intrigued by the potential for a vehicle that could hover, take off, and land vertically, and approach supersonic speeds in any direction. Frost handpicked a team of eight engineers to design ‘Project Y’, the flying saucer which would soon be known as the Avrocar.
Three Orenda engines inside the Avrocar would power a gigantic turbo-rotor, which directed thrust down toward the ground. Vents with variable position flaps around the outside edge of the disk opened and closed to direct thrust from the engines in whichever direction the pilot intended to fly. Even though many critics insisted that the Avrocar could never fly, the United States Air Force decided to fund the project in 1957. Two full-scale Avrocar prototypes were built, one for design testing at Avro Canada and the other for wind tunnel testing in California.
Although capable of controlled flight at 90 cm, the Avrocar became unstable when flying more than a meter above the ground, a far cry from Frost’s vision. After investing $7.5 million, the United States Air Force pulled out of the project and, as secretly as it had begun, the Avrocar met its end. Frost maintained that a redesigned Avrocar would be capable of high altitude flight, but to this day no such vehicle exists. The Avrocar lives on, however, in the form of modern ground cushion vehicles, or hovercraft, which operate according to John Frost’s radical design.
Today, a replica Avrocar can be found on permanent display at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.