Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Jet powered flying saucers in the 1930's

I recently finished reading Indiana Jones and the Sky Pirates by Martin Caidin (best known for The Six Million Dollar Man). It was purchased on a whim after my wife insisted I get a souvenir from our trip to Disney World. Happening upon this paperback right outside the Indiana Jones stunt show in Hollywood Studios, how could I say no?

According to the description, it has Indiana Jones fighting against an evil empire of flying saucer pilots and their giant zeppelin mothership in the '30s. Plus, it has Indy and a steampunk chick in googles looking majestic on the cover. How could that go wrong?

Oh god. It does. If you like to read about people planning to do things for 30 pages, and then getting half a page of the actual action, then this might be your book.

It's like reading the screenplay to a Tarantino movie edited by the Pope. All chatter, all fluff, and no payoff.

After 300+ pages of learning exactly which lights on the plane indicate low oil pressure due to altitude - all the while hoping someone would come along and scoop out my eyes with a table spoon to end my literary misery - the author decides to end with an postscript describing all of the technical research that went into the book.

Let me save you the torture and introduce you to a good bit of historical trivia concerning the Graf Zeppelin and the early jet-powered saucers of Henri Coanda. You'll thank me in the morning.


Recently - the summer of 1991 - I was a guest speaker at the Institute of Advanced Learning in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the subject that raised the greatest interest and brought in a standing-room-only crowd was, not unexpectedly, a serious study of UFO's. During the question and-answer period which gave the audience free rein to ask anything they wanted to ask, and likely never before had the opportunity to get an answer, I was asked the inevitable question. Had I ever seen a UFO? And if I had, what did it look like and what did it do?

I admit to tweaking my audience. Like most people I've seen UFO's through a lifetime, but in this instance I am being very specific. In other words, I had seen at different times something in the sky I could not identify: a flash of light, a colorful ray, a physical object too distant to make out any details. The object I saw was simply impossible to identify. Hardly very exciting.

So I told my audience about an absolutely incredible sighting of many years past, a sighting in broad daylight, under perfect visual conditions, with thunder rolling like the end of the world from the heavens.

"It was a vessel utterly alien to me," I related. "It was absolutely incredible. Nearly a thousand feet long! It sailed across the earth maybe fifteen hundred, perhaps two thousand feet high. It was so huge it partially blocked out the sun. Its deep groaning roar sent birds fleeing and animals dashing for safety. It was silvery, splendid, magnificent as it passed over, and I watched it until it vanished beyond the horizon."

Well, not many people believed me. In fact, I doubt if anybody in that crowd believed a word of what I'd told them. I asked for a show of hands from anyone who believed that what I'd told them was absolutely, unquestionably real.

Not one hand went up. I'd struck out. Zero belief. Then I dropped my "belief bomb."

"I don't know why you find what I just described to you as too fantastic to believe. What I was seeing was also witnessed by millions of other people. I was standing beneath the USS Akron, sister ship to the equally huge USS Macon, the two enormous dirigibles of the United States Navy that were in service in the early 1930's. And, of course, never having seen such a sight before, or having known of these two massive sky vessels, the ship blocking out the sun was alien to me!"

Even if it was some sixty years ago.

It was another wonderful moment of fact being stranger than fiction. And remembering that moment, and others like it-such as those times when I flew a jet fighter in pursuit of other objects in the sky that I never caught up with and never did identify-helped me decide that in INDIANA JONES AND THE SKY PIRATES, everything that seems exotic, wonderful, marvelous - and impossible - is all based on hard, provable, reality.

Airships, the bloated, clumsy cigar-shapes put together from bedsheets, ropes, and clumsy rigging first carried men into the air more than a hundred years ago. Some maneuvered through the skies by men pedaling madly on bicycles that turned propellers instead of wheels. Others used dangerous engines powered with benzine, dangerous because they often burned and exploded in flight, ending promising careers with a fiery finality. Huge dirigibles, notably those from the Zeppelin works in Germany, performed from 1914 to 1918 with astonishing success. They bombed British cities, and in turn they were blasted from the skies by antiaircraft fire and fighter planes. The German L-35 began a new era by carrying aloft an Albatross D-111 fighter plane, and releasing it for protection, like a swift hawk covering a giant plump chicken in the sky. Soon British dirigibles were carrying fighter planes, releasing them in flight and recovering them as well-the predecessors to the huge dirigible in our own story in this book. And nearly seventy-five years ago, Germany's L-53 had already climbed to more than 21,000 feet above the earth.

After that war ended in 1918, dirigibles became ever larger, faster, more powerful, and amazingly reliable-again setting the stage for the mighty airship in our story. Even today, it is difficult to believe the splendid record of certain airships of past times, such as Germany's Graf Zeppelin, which in the time span of nine years flew a total of 17,179 hours in 590 separate flights! The famed Graf flew from Europe to America, to South America and the Middle East, crossed the Arctic on an exciting adventure for its passengers. and then flew around the world on a leisurely tour that even today seems like a dream. Before the Graf Zeppelin was retired after its nine years of service, it had taken aloft, in luxury and perfect safety, more than 34,000 people.

So what you have read in these pages about a great airship and the flying machines it carried, releasing and recovering them in flight, has a great "reality foundation" in aviation history.

But... Jet Engines in 1930?

If you search through your history books on aviation, or study thick encyclopedias, or wander through jet aviation exhibits in museums, you are certain to be informed that the first jet airplane took to the skies in August of 1939. This was a Heinkel He-178 of Germany, and it represented a highwater mark in aviation progress.

But it wasn't the first jet flight-which established another foundation for our story. In fact, the He-178 made its first flight nearly thirty years after the Frenchman, Henri Coanda, lunged into the skies from the airfield at Issy-les-Moulineaux in France. The year was 1910, and not only did Coanda make the first jet flight (short and disastrous though it was), but he also designed the jet engine for his own sleek biplane jet. Today, the second biplane jet Coanda built is still on display at a French aviation museum. The first machine of its type was publicly displayed in 1910 at the Salon Aeronautique in Paris.

This writer interviewed Henri Coanda at great length, and a marvelous time it was, being with one of the greatest aviation pioneers of history. Coanda began to develop his ideas for a jet engine in 1904, when he attended the French School of Advanced Aeronautic Study. From this learning period he designed and continued to improve on a jet engine he called the turbo-propulsor. His friend, Clerget, built the engine from Coanda's design drawings and it was installed in the sleek biplane, also of Coanda's design.

Since Coanda flew his jet in 1910, some twenty years before our story takes place, there was certainly plenty of time to develop the original crude jet engine into a powerful and reliable system for the flying discs that Indiana Jones had to face.

But why haven't we heard more of Coanda?

Because while he managed to take off in his jet, his landing was a thundering crash. He was performing taxi tests. That is, running the Coanda Jet along the airport to test its power and its brakes, so the pilot would know what to expect before his first attempt to fly. To Coanda's surprise, his jet engine was far more powerful than he'd anticipated, and when he pushed his throttle forward, jet flames burst back from the engine, and it howled like a huge dragon. Before Coanda could stop his machine, it leaped into the sky. When Coanda looked up there was a wall in front of him. Desperately, he yanked off power and hauled back on the control stick, and the Coanda Jet fell off to one side and smashed into the ground. Coanda was thrown clear and was only bruised, but the airplane burned to a skeleton.

In our story we encountered Coanda developing his first jet engine and airplane in 1910, and we ran into him again during World War I when he developed a rocket gun for the French Army. He also applied for a patent (in 1914) for his jet engine. All this is factual history, and it establishes the basis for the jet engines in the flying discs.

In fact, Coanda was also responsible for several flying saucer designs which, when they were made public many years after he worked on those astonishing machines, were known as Lenticular Aerodynes. And they worked. So that if the reader assumes that even the flying saucers in our story are, or can be, real-you're right!

The jet engines in this book are based on Coanda's designs built and tested in 1910, and patented in France in 1914. Had the French government or individual investors, supported Coanda's work, then World War I, from 1914 to 1918, might well have been fought with jet fighters and bombers. But the immediate need for planes overshadowed what most Frenchmen had never even heard of, and government authorities looked with suspicion upon anything that revolutionary.

The Coanda engine, as it developed, would have been perfect for the giant dirigible and the flying discs in our story. It fired up like an ordinary combustion engine, but its power came from a rotary system operating at great speed within the engine. The spinning motion created a partial vacuum that drew in huge amounts of air. Then the engine compressed that air, mixed it with fuel, and lit the entire affair in the manner of a continuous explosion. This spun even more blades to increase the flow of air, the density of the fuel-air mixture, the temperature within the engine, and the speed of hot gases hurled back from the engine. There you have it-not merely a workable jet engine, but one that increased its power and compression the faster it moved. And the faster it flew, the greater was its power, so that continuing to develop the Coanda engine gave us the perfect propulsion for the discs and the dirigible that so astonished everyone.

Of course there were still problems to overcome in balancing and controlling the flight direction of the discs, but from the same fertile mind of Henri Coanda came that solution. In his Coanda Effect, the Frenchman proved that by blowing a powerful jet along a flat surface (or engine vane), the flow of the jet will follow the flat surface, and even hug that surface as it begins to move into a circular shape. Coanda designed an Aerodyne machine that created through this effect a partial vacuum above a wing (or a disc in the form of an airfoil) shape. With normal pressure beneath the disc, there was then created a tremendous lifting force. Coanda then designed his jet system into a perfect disc which gave him what he called Three-Dimensional Propulsion. As to balance, the air whirling at tremendous speed in circular motion around the rim of his disc turned the entire disc into a wonderful gyroscope. It always pointed, when flying, to true north. So when the disc maneuvered, it didn't bank and turn like an airplane, but moved in a "skidding motion" through the air. The pilot cockpit swiveled to keep the pilot pointed in whatever direction he desired, and by changing pressure along different parts of the edge of the flying disc, he was able to turn in whatever direction he chose.

Result: a flying saucer.

It took years for the Coanda Effect, and Coanda's unique jet engine design, to actually be built and test flown, but the Canadian government finally assembled the Aerodyne shape-and many years ago actually flew its own flying saucer.

Let's return, even if briefly, to the subject of UFO's as they have been reported for thousands of years. As we pointed out in the story-and every reference to historical sightings of strange and unidentified objects in the skies is absolutely true-the entire subject of the UFO has been an area of great controversy. The truth is that there's no question that strange objects hurtle through our skies. There have been many sightings by highly experienced observers, and, since 1947, UFO's have been captured on film, tracked by telescopes, followed on radar, and had close encounters with manned aircraft.

It may seem strange that the most reliable reports and sightings do not become available to the public. Many UFO sightings by military forces are immediately classified. They cannot be explained, and our government dislikes intensely being on the "hot spot" as unable to verify what's streaking through our skies faster and higher than any airplanes we have in the air.

Because so many reports have been subjected to ridicule, airline captains and top pilots almost to a man refuse to comment publicly on discs and other craft-which are not known to be the property of any country on this planet-they have encountered in flight. This writer has hundreds of such reports from pilots who provided amazing details of the startling objects they have encountered in flight.

Also, when I was in the U.S. Air Force, I participated in UFO-sightings investigations, talking to hundreds of witnesses who had encountered, on the ground and in the air, objects they could not identify. Many reports turned out to be dead ends. Others were exactly the opposite. As a pilot, I have also pursued UFO's while flying high-speed jets. I have chased a startlingly huge disc at low altitude when flying a B-25 bomber; it easily outmaneuvered us and then flew away as if we were standing still in the air. What was it?

I do not know for certain, and I will not draw a firm conclusion when so much hard information is lacking. What we are facing is a mystery that, at least publicly, has yet to be explained in acceptable terms. But the mystery is real; there are strange and unidentified objects in our skies, and we'll just have to live with that reality until we learn enough to, hopefully, understand what's been tearing through our skies for so many thousands of years.


Views: 574


You need to be a member of Dieselpunks to add comments!

Join Dieselpunks

Comment by Gregory A. Wilson on April 9, 2010 at 10:27am
Well, the Max McCoy books in the series are actually rather serviceable, strangely though, I really love the afterwords in the series about the basis for the novels, maybe even more than the stories themselves. Inspiration and education can come from the strangest places, you might say.
Comment by Larry on April 8, 2010 at 10:43pm
Interesting article. I saw this and thought it would be sooo cool.
Comment by Tome Wilson on April 8, 2010 at 10:15pm
@Larry - I hear you. At least you didn't have to spend the cash to figure it out. In the end though, it put me on the trail of Henri Coanda, who seems like a pretty cool character to know about. Check out his wiki article. It's full of fun info about his jet experiments.
Comment by Larry on April 8, 2010 at 9:40pm
What a bummer that it didn't turn out good. As I was reading your article it sounded like a great story and then it turned out to suck.
Comment by Tome Wilson on April 8, 2010 at 1:06pm
@Gregory - Perhaps because they're not all written by this author?
Comment by Gregory A. Wilson on April 8, 2010 at 12:49pm
You would think, given how close Indiana Jones hews to the pulp tradition that he would perfect for novels. And he is, only he has been ill-served by the writers they've had write him. I have a whole stack of them. I've read quite a few. I don't know if that shows my love for Dr. Jones or my masochistic streak....

Stay in touch


Allied Powers

Diesel powered dieselpunk podcast
Dieselpunk Industries
Seance Media by Tome Wilson
Vnv Nation

© 2019   Created by Tome Wilson.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service