Strange airplanes you never knew existed

Not every airplane is as recognizable as a 747 or F-16. Some are so bizarre that if you saw them at your local airport you would think it was a movie prop, or maybe a UFO. These airplanes are so bizarre they could cause distracted driving accidents. Get your eye-fill here so you don't have to gawk next time you see one in your local Walmart parking lot.

Stipa-Caproni

Between World War I and II, airplane designers tried tons of experimental ideas, some barely looking like airplanes and few coming out successful. One of the most interesting was the Stipa-Caproni, which looks like a cartoon, but the Stipa-Caproni was actually an important forerunner to modern jets.

The body of the airplane was a ducted fan with a small engine inside. The tube body doesn't look complex, but is the result of intense calculations by designer Luigi Stipa. When air entered the front of the tube, the propeller compressed it and shot the air out the back, providing thrust. Surprisingly, the airplane flew really well, with pilots reporting it to be incredibly stable, with no control issues. In fact, it was so stable, pilots sometimes had a hard time getting it to change direction. Ask any pilot, and they will tell you changing direction mid-flight? A tad important.

Stipa's design was nothing short of revolutionary, but it never caught on. The biggest issue was payload. There was no room for storing passengers, freight, or weaponry, and as world powers built their forces leading up to World War II, payload was critical for new airplanes. Even though the Stipa-Caproni never caught on, it was still an important link between propeller planes and jet engines. Modern turbofan engines use the same principles that Stipa discovered, so when you fly on a big airliner, you are flying on a direct — and mobile — descendant of this stubby Italian plane.

M-15 Belphagor

Most major forces moved away from biplanes when the Jet Age hit, but the Soviet Union kept at them. Biplanes were great for the vast farmland and tundras of Russia but, in the 1970s, the Soviets realized they needed to replace their old agricultural planes. The PZL aerospace firm in Poland got the assignment — looking to capitalize on the best of jet engines and biplanes, they made the crazy decision to mix both. The resulting M-15 is the only massed produced jet biplane ever.

In service, the M-15 somehow ruined the best parts of both its parents. It was painfully slow for a jet airplane, but not as economically viable as a simple biplane. While the Soviets were trying to iron out the kinks in the M-15, NATO commanders got spooked by it, believing that it could pour poison gas over Europe. Fortunately, they severely overestimated the M-15s capabilities — out of the 3,000 ordered, only 120 got produced before the USSR pulled the plug on the project.

This wasn't soon enough for the M-15 to pick up the nickname "Belphegor." It's ... not a compliment. In ancient mythology, Belphegor was an ugly, noisy demon who tricked people into thinking they had invented something good, when they actually hadn't. We can't think of a better nickname for this airplane.

Sikorsky X-wing

Helicopters can take off vertically and are super maneuverable, but slow. Fixed-wing aircrafts are fast, but need airfields to support them. The Holy Grail of military design is an airplane that combines the good aspects of helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes. Helicopter pioneers Sikorsky decided to take a stab at such a hybrid design.

Named the X-wing, after the Star Wars fighter, the helicopter looked like something right out of that galaxy. It used a theory called "stopped rotor," where the big rotor on top of the helicopter would spin like normal, to get the X-wing up into the air. Once it reached a certain altitude, and gained enough airspeed, the rotor would stop spinning, and the jet engines would completely take over. At that point, the rotor acted like another wing.

It was a clever design, and NASA even heralded it as "the shape of things to come." Testing went really well, but government military cuts ultimately doomed the project. By the late '80s, the United States was cutting superfluous projects, and the expensive X-wing was early on the chopping block. Luke Skywalker never had to worry about his X-wing getting taken away due to Rebel budget issues, but in the real world, the Sikorsky X-wing went the way of Alderaan.

Rutan Boomerang

Legendary designer Burt Rutan is known for his weird-looking airplanes. When working on the Boomerang, Rutan designed the plane for maximum safety, looking to combat the dangers of power loss, should an engine die. Having more thrust on one side of an airplane is a sure way to get it to crash, and Rutan fixed that.

He started out by laying out a normal twin-engine airplane and slowly changing it. He moved the cabin to one side of the airplane, and started angling the wings in weird ways. When he finished, the airplane had such a weird configuration, people actually asked him if he designed it on drugs. Rutan in the sky with diamonds?

Viewed from the top, the wings of the Boomerang use sharp, angled turns, making it so the engines aren't lined up horizontally. With the weird configuration, the Boomerang is incredibly stable, even with only one engine. While other prop planes will suffer control loss if an engine dies, the Boomerang flies just as well on one engine as it does on two. Rutan's asymmetrical design is the way of the future, even if it makes all of our airplanes look like they were designed by Jefferson Airplane after doing what the doormouse said.

Rotary Rocket Roton

Space flight is expensive, in large part due to the rocket propellant. Rocket scientists are constantly working on ways to make spaceflight cheaper and easier, but few come up with as novel a concept as Rotary Rocket's Roton.

The Rotary Rocket company looked at the flight profile of a rocket, and realized much of its fuel got used while reaching altitudes that normal airplanes easily achieve. Much of a rocket's bulk and fuel was unnecessary if you could already launch it from a high altitude, which lead to the Roton's design. The top of the cone-shaped machine is a helicopter, capable of lifting the Roton beyond sky-high. Once it got up to operation altitude, the rockets on the bottom would fire, shooting the Roton up into space. This way, most of the hard work was already done by a system cheaper than normal rockets.

It looks insane, but the Roton actually flew ... terribly. Imagine having to pilot a six-story-tall helicopter with a high center of gravity, and you can imagine why flying this thing was a nightmare. Ultimately, a struggling private space industry doomed the project before it could even try out the rockets (probably for the best). Contracts for launches never materialized, and by 2001, Rotary Rocket gave up on the Roton. Since testing occurred in the Mojave desert, we have to wonder how many people reported UFO sightings when they saw a six-story tall helicopter floating above the desert.

Wainfan Facetmobile

Lifting-body airplanes don't use a clear fuselage and wing configuration, opting to mix them together. An airplane designed this way uses the whole airframe for lift, not just the wings. Airplanes using lifting body principles look awesome, but they're only used by militaries and groups like NASA. Inventor Barnaby Wainfan isn't down with that, and wants lifting bodies to make inroads into civilian aviation.

Wainfan's experimental Facetmobile (which looks like a stealth fighter, probably because Wainfan was an aerospace engineer for defense technology giant Northrop Grumman) shows that aircraft manufacturers definitely can build civilian lifting bodies for cheap. The Facetmobile uses eleven flat panels to make up the body, with no exotic materials used, only aluminum and fabric. Plus, huge windows in the cockpit give the pilot excellent visibility, something almost as important as the ability to turn the plane around.

In flight testing, the Facetmobile flew shockingly well, leading Wainfan to claim it the wave of the future. While the design hasn't caught on yet, it's certainly exciting to imagine having a miniature stealth fighter to fly at your own leisure. Wainfan better be careful though — we're sure that some militaries (and not necessarily the friendly ones) would love a cheap faux-stealth fighter.

Reid Flying Submarine RFS-1

No beating around the bush here: the Reid Flying Submarine is exactly what it sounds like: a hybrid submarine-airplane. Straight out of a James Bond movie, inventor Donald Reid constructed his RFS-1 from cannibalizing other airplanes, and mashing their components together. Because of that, the RFS-1 was decidedly low-tech, using only the bare minimum parts to work as an airplane and a submarine.

Shockingly, the RFS-1 sort of worked! The airplane was incredibly heavy, so it could only do slight hops in the air, but it could dive, at least a little bit. Before diving, the pilot had to remove the propeller, and cover the engine in rubber. Since the airplane had an open cockpit, the pilot used an aqualung while under water. The RFS-1 dived down to 12 feet during a test, which must have been a trip to watch.

Although it was clumsy, the RFS-1 is an amazing achievement for one man working with scavenged airplane parts. The United States military took interest in the airplane, but never developed the idea, which is weird considering that this was the height of the Cold War, when we would try anything if we thought it would help us beat the Russians even a little bit. While Reid never found people interested in the project, a flying submarine is still highly sought after, with DARPA announcing in 2008 they were studying designs for a stealth submarine-airplane.

UTAIS Ornithopter No.1

Even before the Wright Brothers flew their first powered plane, everybody realized that even though birds flew by flapping their wings, human flight would have to take a different path. The idea of an airplane that flew by flapping wings became quaint, a holdover from earlier, more naïve times. Aircraft engineers are an interesting breed though, and few ideas die forever.

Bird-like flying machines crop up from time to time, but the most interesting recent experiment was the UTAIS Ornithopter No.1, which "flew" back in 2006. Designed by the University of Toronto, the incredibly light No.1 used a small motor to power its flapping wings. Realizing that a motor wasn't enough to flap it off the ground, the designers also fitted the airplane with a jet engine booster to launch it into the air. To us, that seems like cheating, but the University claimed that most of the thrust was coming from the wings.

When the No.1 did its first test flight, it jumped off the runway for 14 seconds after the jet booster activated, traveled awkwardly for a third of a kilometer, nosed down, and crashed. The University claimed the test was a success, which seems like a really strong word for something that crashed right after taking off. But who are we to judge? Maybe success means something different in Canada.

Lun-class Ekranoplan

When United States intelligence services got pictures of this Soviet seaplane sitting in the Caspian Sea, they had so little idea of what they were looking at that, they just called it the Caspian Sea Monster. Called an Ekranoplan by the Soviets, this monster was a hybrid ship/airplane/missile launcher that defies all classification.

The Lun uses the ground effect, an aerodynamic phenomenon where airplanes flying close to water or the ground are able to create an air cushion underneath them for lift. To use the ground effect, you have to fly really low, and the Lun flew only a few feet above the Caspian Sea.

In combat operations, the Lun could carry combat troops into battle, roaring 16 feet above the water at 350 miles per hour. Since the Lun was bigger than any modern airliner, that would have been a terrifying sight. Beyond its transport capabilities, the Lun also had six nuclear missile launchers on its back that could launch in-flight.

As impressive as the Lun was, it had significant drawbacks — namely, it was one of the least-maneuverable airplanes ever designed, and could only take off into the wind. Testing cancelled when the Cold War ended, and the poor Lun is now rotting away in a Russian dry dock. If, for some reason, you ever find yourself in Kaspiysk, Russia, go check it out.

SNECMA Coleoptere

Vertical Take Off and Landing was all the rage during the Cold War, with all countries involved trying to make VTOL fighter planes. Only the Harrier was really successful, but the Soviets made a cheap knock-off version, and the United States borrowed the Harrier design from the British.

The French, meanwhile, were on a whole different planet with VTOL designs, inexplicably coming up with Coleoptere. This weird plane used an annular wing, which is basically like taking a normal wing and wrapping it into a loop. The odd wing design made it look like something out of a science fiction movie, but shockingly enough, was aerodynamically sound.

In combat, planners believed the Coleoptere would shoot off into the air like a missile, engage the enemy, and then fly back to base. That's great, but coming back down was a huge problem, since SNECMA planned to have the fighter land on its tail. As cool as the annular wing looked, it had the huge disadvantage of not letting the pilot see behind him, a significant problem if you're trying to fly the plane backwards. Even the best test pilots struggled to land the thing, and yet the French still went ahead with tests, until the ninth flight, when the Coleoptere started spinning, and crashed.

The French air force finally got smart and cancelled the airplane, realizing it was unnecessarily dangerous for pilots. Unsurprisingly, no other air force, not even the most ironic of hipster air forces, ever gave the Coleoptere concept a whirl again.