On April 5, 2011, in California’s Newport Beach Harbor, British billionaire and adventurist Richard Branson stood on top of his latest “toy”, a relatively small vehicle with tails, wings, and a cockpit. It was a photo-opportunity and the grinning tycoon knew he had the journalists’ attentions.
The event was part of a news conference in which he announced his plan to dive to the deepest depths of the five oceans, as well as to introduce the vehicle he was going to use for this adventure. Branson called it a flying submarine; however, this sub was designed to “fly” underwater instead of in the air.
There’s nothing new about a submarine with wings. For years, inventors, underwater researchers, and navies around the world have experimented with such designs. In fact, the history of the flying submarine – and its future – suggests that the concept of these vehicles has gone beyond the role of diving under the waves; they can fly over them.
Soviets Search for a New Weapon
The first attempt to design a flying submarine was in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s. The Soviets were looking for an edge against Germans and were considering several hybrid weapons. One such vehicle was the flying tank – a tank with glider wings attached to – was built, and tested but never made the battlefield after the realization that tanks were simply too heavy to fly.
The next hybrid was the flying submarine. Planning was started in 1939 as a project at the Navel Engineering Institute in Pushkin, and was headed by engineer Boris Ushakov. He had dreamed up the concept five years earlier. The project was temporarily suspended, but was reopened in 1943 at the height of World War II.
Ushakov’s Flying Submarine – later to be known as LPL Flying Submarine, or just “LPL” – was designed to have three airplane propeller engines, pontoons/ballasts, a conning tower with scope on top of the cockpit, and two aquatic propellers in the rear.
The LPL was ambitious – possibly too ambitious – like the “flying tank”, LPS was deemed to be too heavy to operate and it was terminated in 1953 by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
While the actual plan for LPL never reached fruition as an operating vehicle, it found new life as a 1:72 scale model kit for Unicraft.
Reid’s Flying Submarine
In 1961, R/C enthusiast and defense contractor Donald Reid of Asbury Park, New Jersey took up the challenge of building a flying submarine. Bernhard Klein of 1000craftphotos.com remarked that Reid came by his design almost by accident when “a set of model airplane wings fell off a shelf and landed on the hull of one of his radio-controlled submarines (Klein, 2007).”
What resulted was the RFS-1 ( Reid Flying Submarine-1), the first piloted craft in this classification. Reid’s flying submarine was smaller than the LPL, and carried only one pilot. Also, the conversion from plane to sub wasn’t exactly automatic. In order to convert it to a submergible vehicle, the pilot had to remove the propeller (located above the plane’s fuselage) and cover the four-cylinder Lycoming aircraft engine with a rubber “diving bell” (Klein, 2007).
As a submarine, it was powered by a 1 horse-power electric motor in the tail. Also, the pilot had to use an Aqualung in order to operate it at depths below 10 or 12 feet.
The first flight was made on the Shrewsbury River in 1962 by Reid’s son, Bruce. Later, it went through the full cycle of flights and dives on June 9, 1964. According to records, it did fly, but was unable to stay in the air long; the problem was that the vehicle was underpowered. Still, it managed to fly at an attitude of 33 feet, and dive to a depth of 6.5 feet.
Reid proved that such a concept can work. Unfortunately, the Reid RFS-1 was the only one made. Reid tried to get the attention of the military; however, they were not interested at the time.
Cormorant and the Future
Reid never sold his flying submarine to the Navy; however, the Navy didn’t abandon the idea. LiveScience.com reported in 2006 that the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works program were making plans to build an unmanned flying submarine known as Cormorant. This particular drone would be used as either a reconnaissance or attack vehicle and be launched from a Trident missile tube an Ohio-class submarine.
The design for the Cormorant would make it stealthy and jet-powered. Also, it would be able to be launched from 150 feet underwater. Also, it would be able to return to the submarine at the same depth it was launched at.
Cormorant is merely one plan. In October 2008, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced it was preparing to issue contracts for a flying submarine. According to a 2010 New Scientist article, the agency was “calling for a stealthy aircraft that can fly low over the sea until it nears its target…and transform itself into a submarine that will cruise under water to within striking distance (Marks, 2010).”
To date, the closest functional flying submarine is Branson’s model, despite being designed to “fly” underwater, only. The last true “flying submarine” was the Reid RFS-1. However, the future may lead to more of these hybrid vehicles. Who knows? Maybe Branson will build a true flying submarine to fly to the edge of space, as well as dive to the greatest depths of inner-space.
Kurczy, Stephen (April 2011) “ Flying submarine: Richard Branson shifts sights from outer space to deep sea”: The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2011/0406/Flying-submarine-Richard-Branson-shifts-sights-from-outer-space-to-deep-sea
Klein, Bernhard (2007): “No. 6559. Reid RFS-1 (N1740)”: 1000aircraftphotos.com: http://1000aircraftphotos.com/Contributions/KleinBernhard/6559.htm
“Reid (2009)”: aerofiles.com: http://www.aerofiles.com/_ra.html
Sweetman, Bill (2006)“Navy Plans Flying Submarine”: LiveScience.com: http://www.livescience.com/7067-navy-plans-flying-submarine.html
Marks, Paul (July 2010): “From sea to sky: Submarines that Fly”: New Scientists: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727671.000-from-sea-to-sky-submarines-that-fly.html