The “Pancake” Lives On

Sep 19, 2012 7 Comments by

During WW II, every manufacturer was aggressively seeking ways of squeezing more performance out of aircraft. Unfortunately, virtually all of those sometimes unorthodox experimental aircraft have disappeared. This is what makes the displaying of the most unorthodox of them all, the Vought V-173 “Flying Flap Jack,” at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field in Dallas so important. The V-173 was a proof of concept machine that anticipated a larger, similarly shaped Navy fighter, the XF5U-1, which Vought completed but never flew. The V-173 flew 131 hours and helped generate huge amounts of aerodynamic data on its unique aerial configuration.

“This was an early vertical- or short-distance takeoff and landing airplane,” said Dick Atkins, a retiree who worked on the restoration. “It was designed by Vought engineer Charles Zimmerman, and some people called it the Zimmer Skimmer. It didn’t actually fly vertically, but it came close.”

The concept must have been viable because at one point during testing, the aircraft was force landed on a beach with no damage to pilot or plane.

The V-173 was built around an unconventional “all wing,” super-low aspect ratio configuration with its flat, disk-shaped body providing its lifting surface. To maintain wing lift at the slowest speed possible, Zimmerman mounted 16-foot prop-rotors at the wingtips, and designed the left prop-rotor to turn counter-clockwise (as viewed by the pilot) and the right prop-rotor to turn clockwise. This rotation is opposite to the direction of the wingtip vortices that would be crippling on such a low aspect ratio wing. The effect is to cancel the tip losses giving the wing much more lift.

Atkins said that several pilots flew the plane, including civilian test pilot Charles Lindbergh.

The V-173 flew for the first at the Stratford, Connecticut, Vought-Sikorsky plant on November 23, 1942. Boone T. Guyton, a former naval aviator and Vought’s chief test pilot, was at the controls. While crowds watched a flight that was supposed to be secret, Guyton landed after just 13 minutes. He had determined that the pilot’s controls needed modification.

Constructed primarily of tubing, wood, and fabric, the V-173 was powered by two 80-horsepower Continental A-80 engines driving twin three-bladed propellers at opposite ends of the leading edge of its body shape. Entry to the cockpit was through a ventral hatch.

According to Atkins, the V-173 finished flight-testing in March 1947. It then stayed at the parent company’s Hartford, Connecticut, plant until 1949, when it was transferred to Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia, to become property of the National Air Museum, now called the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).

Atkins remembers famed museologist Paul Garber giving him a tour of the aircraft at the museum’s Silver Hill, Maryland, facility in 1962. “It was in great shape then,” he recalls. “However, when we received it in Dallas [in 2003], all the fabric was rotted and falling off.”

Atkins said that 10 Vought retirees worked on the V-173 “more or less full time. The Vought Aircraft Heritage Foundation, in association with the Vought Retiree Club, did the V-173 restoration.

Atkins and others who worked on the restoration remember that the Navy ordered the destruction of the two subsequent XF5U-1s and of all documentation relating to them.

Contrary to much that was written in later years, the V-173 was not responsible for reports of flying saucers or unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Pilot Kenneth A. Arnold is usually credited with the first widely reported UFO sighting near Mount Rainier, Washington, on June 24, 1947, but this was after the V-173 was no longer flying.
By Robert F. Dorr, Photo by Jay Miller

V-173 specifications

Type: Single-place research aircraft

Powerplant: Two 80-horsepower Continental A-80 four-cylinder opposed, air-cooled engines driving two three-bladed, controllable pitch propellers 16 feet, 6 inches in diameter

Performance: Maximum speed 138mph; rate of climb 800 feet per minute; service ceiling 10,000 feet; range unknown

Weights: Empty weight, 1,655 pounds; gross weight, 2,305 pounds

Dimensions: Length: 26 feet, 8 inches; Width: 23 feet, 4 inches; Height: 12 feet, 11 inches

First flight: November 23, 1942

Debra Cleghorn

About the author

Executive editor About me: I’m a publishing professional who has a passion for aviation and RC, and I love creating issues, books and a website that help RC pilots to enjoy this sport even more. I admire scale aircraft and enjoy the convenience of flying smaller electrics.

7 Responses to “The “Pancake” Lives On”

  1. vincent-stiglet says:

    is there a model of this aircarf tat i can build an fly i have been building model planes for about 40years and still doing it i have built just about every fighter plane there is for i just love building them dont fly much now just build them and hang them in the shop

  2. Keith says:

    Vincent-Stiglet, you can get a set of plans for a 45 inch wing span version one the V-173 from Traplet Publications. The article on building this model was in the December 2008 issue of Quiet and Electric Flight International. The link to the plans is: http://shop.traplet.com/product.aspx?c=2655.

  3. Robert Majors There are plastic model kits in 1/72 and 1/48 by a company called Sword. Nice kits of a very interesting plane. says:

    There are plastic model kits in 1/72 and 1/48 by a company called Sword. Nice kits of a very interesting plane.

  4. Bill says:

    I remember reading about this when I was a kid. Always wondered what happened to it. Glad to see it is being restored

  5. Chuck Cawthon says:

    For anyone who is interested in seeing the Real Flying Pancake it is currently based at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field, Dallas Texas. I was there in June 2012 to see it. Painstakingly restored to better than new.

  6. Gary Villette says:

    Several years ago I built a small test-bed version of this design using fanfold foam. It flew, as evidenced in the video:
    http://gvillette.rchomepage.com/V-173.wmv

  7. Doublebuck says:

    Hi Gary,

    Thanks for bringing this rare moment of history to actual flight in an R/C model! I really enjoyed the video of your flight!

    Ron

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