by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Military fliers generally don’t have many options—and even fewer good ones—when they get shot down. In the late 1950s, the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation thought up an idea that would let stranded pilots do more than just hide and wait for a rescue party.
In 1952, Goodyear designed a small escape plane. To keep the overall size and weight down, the company built the simple aircraft out of large inflatable parts—like an air mattress.
“The need exists for a better means of escape for fliers down in enemy territory,” the company explained in a report sent to the U.S. Navy five years later. “Present methods are generally limited in range, involve considerable risk to a number of persons other than the downed flier and require perfect coordination between the rescuer and the rescued.”
At the time, helicopters were still a relatively new technology and could only travel short distances. Existing seaplanes — and other rescue aircraft — wouldn’t necessarily be able to reach crews in danger.
Goodyear’s plan was for a larger aircraft to drop an unassembled inflatable plane—not-too-creatively named the Inflatoplane—near a crash site. On the ground, the friendly fliers could pump up their ride and fly to safety.
The Pentagon was reticent about the concept … and it’s easy to see why. The concept amounted to a motor strapped onto a tiny glider that a person would blow up like a beach ball.
“Considerable skepticism was expressed as to the possibility of successfully making such an aircraft,” Goodyear admitted in its design review.
So the company’s engineers went ahead and built their first prototype, the GA-33. This rubber-skinned plane had a fully inflatable fuselage and top-mounted wing. A non-inflatable engine, struts, landing gear and controls completed the design.
The pilot sat all the way at the front and was completely exposed to the elements. But that was OK, as the plane could only fly at low altitudes.
The GA-33 wasn’t much to look at, but it flew. Suitably impressed, the Office of Naval Research hired Goodyear to build a second experimental plane.
The resulting GA-447 looked more like a traditional glider. The new Inflatoplane had a fully enclosed cockpit with a transparent plastic windshield.
Goodyear estimated that a single person could use a hand pump to inflate the plane halfway in about 10 minutes. A single 40-horsepower Nelson H-59 engine would then help expand the plane to its full size. The motor would keep the aircraft inflated and stable in the air.
The engine would run a small propeller and pull the Inflatoplane along at a top speed of just over 50 miles per hour. Hiller’s tiny YROE-1 helicopter—another experimental escape vehicle for downed pilots in development at the same time—also used the Nelson powerplant.
Under optimal conditions and with the fuel provided, Goodyear expected that a single individual could fly nearly 500 miles in the GA-447.
By 1961, the company’s designers had built two more variations. The GA-466 could carry two fliers instead of just one, and the GA-468 was yet another improved version of the original Inflatoplanes.
But as the company developed the planes, it added more bulk and weight. To make it lighter, the GA-468 did away with the fully enclosed cockpit. Engineers then elongated the dashboard to help deflect the wind.
When deflated, the whole aircraft was incredibly small. The GA-468 could fit inside a container three feet long, four feet wide and three and a half feet tall. An empty Inflatoplane weighed almost 250 pounds.
But while Goodyear was happy, the Navy lost interest.
While functional, a slow-moving, inflatable aircraft incapable of flying at high altitude would have been an easy target for enemy troops. On top of that, any loss of pressure in the wing or fuselage could result in a catastrophic accident.
In spite of these issues, the Army and Marine Corps still wanted to conduct experiments of their own. In addition to rescuing downed aircrews, these two services envisioned hauling cargo or flying reconnaissance missions with the small planes.
However, the Marines had serious issues just getting an Inflatoplane for their tests. And the design shortcomings were becoming painfully obvious.
The GA-468’s wing had failed twice while the jarheads were learning how to fly it at the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland. “One such failure caused the death of a test pilot,” the Marine Corps’ final report on the project stated.
The Marines ended up canceling their experiments early. By that point, the Navy had decided to give up on the whole program, too. More conventional aircraft and helicopters were better suited for spying and moving supplies.
The Army kept at it for another decade. But the ground combat branch eventually arrived at the same conclusions — the Inflatoplane just wasn’t practical. Goodyear had built a dozen of them in total.
While Goodyear still makes blimps today, the idea of an inflatable military rescue plane remains a flight of fancy.
Old U.S. Air Force manual proposed an impossible escape planmedium.com
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