Project Y - A Sleek, Arch-Shaped Aircraft

Revealed - Britain’s 1950s Flying Saucer
by Jonathan Leake
Science Editor

Source: BRITAIN ©
March 26 2000

Light years ahead of its time: the British prototype of the experimental plane known as Project Y was designed to take off and land vertically.

Saucerful of secrets: the disc-shaped Avro plane was intended to fly at 2,500mph.

It is the nearest the RAF got to a UFO. Recently discovered photographs taken at a secret laboratory in the 1950s reveal for the first time how close Britain came to developing a saucer-shaped stealth fighter after the second world war.

The pictures, taken at a research centre in Canada, show a revolutionary ultra-high-speed jet fighter designed by the British engineer John Frost. Aviation experts who studied the pictures last week said the jet incorporated some of the features on America’s stealth fighter plane.

Work on the aircraft in the 1950s was codenamed Project Y. Frost and his team initially set out to build a disc-shaped machine with vertical takeoff, but ended with a sleek, arch-shaped aircraft.

"The pictures are a wonderful find," said David Windle, who has researched the history of Project Y. "It is technology that Britain just lost and it is a pity the project was abandoned. Who knows what would have happened if they had pursued it."

The photographs were taken at a laboratory in Malton, near Toronto, where Frost was working with Avro-Canada, a subsidiary of the British firm Avro, to develop a jet fighter for the Canadian government. He wanted to create an aircraft which could fly at 2,500mph and take off and land on its tail.

The existence of Project Y has been known about for years, but no pictures of the aircraft have ever been found. An aviation researcher accidentally discovered the photographs in a file at the Public Records Office in Kew.

An elongated saucer shape was used because of the revolutionary "radial flow" jets designed to power it. The engines were designed to emit the exhaust gases from several small nozzles, increasing the thrust of the jet.

Aviation experts said last week that the prototype vehicle would have been almost invisible to radar because of its slim cross-section. It would also have been more likely to evade enemy missiles because of the lower heat output through the numerous jet outlets.

It is not known why the revolutionary jet never went into production, but the project was abandoned before the plane had its first test flight.

Reach for the sky: despite its sleek look, the Avro never flew Alex Raeburn, then assistant superintendent of manufacturing at Avro, described the life of secrecy for those on the base. "The security was very tight," he says. "Armed guards were stationed on the doors and drawings were taken away as soon as we’d made the component. In fact, we never knew exactly what it was we were making."

Verne Morse, one of the team who worked on the secret project, said he was amazed any pictures had survived because of the total secrecy surrounding the project. He described how he saw a subsequent model designed by the team.

"When I saw it [the plane] for the first time I was stunned," he said. "I’d heard rumours we were working on a flying saucer, but I dismissed them. Now, here I was looking at it, and I was speechless."

In 1954, the Canadian government decided to end the development of the aircraft. The American air force took over the project and later a scaled-down version of the plane became an "air jeep", which was nicknamed the Avrocar.

Raeburn said he witnessed test pilot Spud Potocki flying the saucer-shaped craft. "I remember him flying up to the hangar windows and looking in like a humming bird might do. When he flew in cold weather the engines sucked pieces of ice off the puddles. They’d float around in the air, shining in the sunlight."

Professor Michael Graham, professor of aerodynamics at Imperial College, said: "In the 1950s there was a lot of interest in different aircraft shapes. This is built like a kind of flying wing. Its ability to hover is useful for landing in rough places."

While Frost worked on Project Y, American engineers were developing their own ultra-high-speed jets at desert bases in California and Nevada, which led to the development of spy planes such as the U2.

In 1961, however, despite the successful flights of the Avrocar, the American air force halted all funding for the company’s researchers. There were no more British-designed flying saucers and Frost left Avro and moved to New Zealand, where he died.

Last week Tony, his son, said: "Dad was a brilliant artist who was always designing things, but he combined that skill with being a very capable mathematician and great lateral thinker."

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