In Canada, British and Canadian engineers were in the process of building a flying saucer of their own.
It was called Project Y, a Canadian venture into the unknown that was, for much of the 1950s, perhaps the most secret aviation project in the West.
Half a century later, the Project Y story remains a remarkable chapter in the history of aerial design, an idea that came tantalizingly close to
breaking all the rules of the sky, before collapsing in bitter disappointment for lack of money and faith.
Back in the '50s, the news that Canadians were building a flying saucer set off alarm bells at the CIA. Was the United States being left behind by
its staunchest allies in the race for a technological edge? And if Canada could build a flying saucer, then surely the Soviet Union wouldn't be too
Mr. Chadwell wanted answers. The sense of urgency is tangible in a memorandum he sent in June of 1954 to his department heads, demanding reports on
"the use by any foreign power or nation of non-conventional types of air vehicles, such as or similar to the 'saucer like' planes presently under
development by the Anglo/Canadian efforts."
While CIA agents were dispatched to watch eastern skies for flying saucers, U.S. Air Force officers were visiting Malton, just outside Toronto, the
headquarters of Avro Aircraft, a subsidiary of A. V. Roe Canada Ltd. and the British Hawker Siddeley Group.
After the war, Avro Aircraft, in Malton, Ontario was the place to be for hotshot aircraft designers fleeing Britain's doomed aviation industry. Among
them was a supremely talented 31-year-old, John Frost, who had already earned a reputation for unorthodox design with the sleek de Havilland 108, a
swallow-shaped research plane and arguably one of the most beautiful aircraft of all time.
In his own work at Malton, John Frost seemed to be groping his way. He was in search of the aeronautical holy grail of the age, the vertical takeoff
and landing (VTOL) craft, but he began his research on a spade-shaped craft before settling in 1953 on a disc. The original concept called for a
single flat turbojet to draw in air from above and force it out through nozzles around the edge of the craft. It would be kept aloft by a cushion of
air and pulled upward by the Coanda effect.
The early work was carried out in total secrecy; only a handful of Avro workers were told what was going on. "It was so secret that when Frost would
come to the welding shop, he would sketch the piece he wanted on some paper and, when we had finished, we had to put the sketch in a special garbage
bag," Alex Raeburn, Avro's workshop superintendent at the time, recalls.
Verne Morse, a company photographer, was made privy to the secret only once it had begun to take shape. "There was a stupid rumour going around the
plant that we were building a flying saucer, and everybody was laughing about it," he says. "Then one day I was called in by security, and I was
told I needed clearance because we were building a flying saucer.
"My first impression was that this was ridiculous," but when he was taken past the guards, through Project Y's double doors, and saw the smooth
metal disc taking shape, he was speechless. "It was a sense of 'Wow!' Just real awe."
But Project Y's first year was proving troublesome. The jet engine blew so hot it melted the steel structure of the craft, and its violent shaking
would pop the rivets. When the U.S. Air Force officers arrived in September of 1953, the Canadian government, having spent $400,000 on the project,
was glad to hand over the reins to a bigger sponsor. A.V. Roe, having failed to squeeze funds out of the British government, also welcomed the
Americans with open arms.
In 1955, Project Y became the U.S. Defence Department's weapon system 606A, and a white USAF star was painted on the prototype's fuselage. Millions
were now being poured into the project, and the cult of secrecy deepened yet further.
Mr. Raeburn recalls the day in 1955 that the U.S. Navy came to take the prototype away for wind-tunnel tests near Los Angeles. "We loaded it on a
flatbed truck in the middle of the night. The police shut off all the traffic right down to Toronto harbour, and they put it on a U.S. tugboat. They
even had one of our men sworn in to the U.S. Navy so he could go with it, along the Erie Canal, along the New York intercoastal waterway, and through
the Panama Canal."
With the help of U.S. financing, Mr. Frost had redesigned the original concept, placing three small jet engines around a central fan that would suck
in the air through a circular intake at the centre of the disc. The pilot would sit in a little oval cockpit to one side under a perspex bubble.
But the wind-tunnel tests suggested that secret weapon 606A had severe stability problems and was in constant danger of flipping over like a stiff
pancake once the throttles were opened on its jets. Mr. Frost and his assistants tinkered away at the problems for another year, but had still not
mastered them by the winter of 1960 when Spud Potocki, a former Polish air force flier, took the prototype for its first flight
Over the next few months, as Mr. Potocki attained a feel for the delicate controls, he was allowed to roam around the Avro compound, dodging in and
out of hangars. Mr. Raeburn would often look out of his workshop window and see it floating by. "He would go up and down and hover over the concrete
apron and look in the doors of the hangars. I remember the wind would suck the ice off the puddles and they would float around in the air like plates
Avro's management was overjoyed to see its flying saucer take to the air. The publicity department began designing brochures to capitalize on the
aircraft's boundless potential for the day when the shroud of secrecy would drop away. It was to be called the Avrocar, and it would spawn a string
of civilian and military spinoffs. There would be an Avrowagon for the family of the future, an Avroangel (an air ambulance that would zip to the
scene of an accident and land on the spot) and an Avropelican for air-sea rescues and anti-submarine warfare.
Ken Palfrey, a draughtsman on the project, remembers Mr. Frost's far-reaching hopes. "He was planning to make one four times as big, to move troops
in and out of battle, like helicopters do now."
The giant troop carriers would lurk under the enemy radar, drop their passengers and then zip into the stratosphere before the other side even spotted
them. Mr. Happe recalls Mr. Frost excitedly visualizing the craft bouncing off the upper layers of the atmosphere, crossing continents in a single
The reality was more mundane. The Avrocar hovered happily close to solid ground but became dangerously unstable at heights over 2.5 metres, however
much Spud Potocki struggled with the controls. The USAF wanted to fit it with a tailplane to test whether that would correct the problem, but Mr.
Frost, a design purist, refused to countenance the idea. "He wouldn't have it," Mr. Palfrey recalls. "When the Americans suggested that, it was
about the only time I ever saw him angry."
Mr. Frost insisted he could fix the problems, but the U.S. military was rapidly losing interest. After spending $7.5-million, the Defence Department
pulled the plug at the end of 1961, killing the Avrocar. Mr. Frost left the country a bitter man. "He was completely fed up," Mr. Palfrey says. "It
was a sad story. He was a fine guy. A gentleman."
The designer ended up in Auckland, where he spent the rest of his days dreaming up gadgets for Air New Zealand, such as a hydraulic tail dock to allow
engineers easy access to commercial planes. But it was small potatos compared to the cosmic ambitions of Project Y, and the sense of betrayal was as
keen as ever when he finally retired in May of 1979.
In his valedictory interviews, Mr. Frost told the local press that he had been robbed of credit for inventing the Hovercraft by Sir Christopher
Cockerell. The irony was that, at Malton, Mr. Frost's eyes had been so set on the skies he failed to spot the Avrocar's ground-hugging potential.
Within a few days of leaving his job, he died. He was 63.
The legend of Project Y lives on in the Web pages of committed ufologists. Some speculate that it had been a stunning success, and the litany of
design errors and disappointments recalled by Avro veterans was merely a cover story. Others believe the project was merely a smokescreen for the
Pentagon's "real" flying saucer project being masterminded in secret bases such as Roswell, perhaps by mysterious superannuated Nazis such as Dr
As for secret weapon 606A, the prototype is gathering dust in a corner of a Maryland warehouse that serves as a storage facility for the National Air
and Space Museum. Jack Walker, a veteran pilot who shows visitors around, cannot understand why anyone would want to see it, and warns visitors not to
get too close lest they be abducted by aliens.
The burnished metal disc, about 15 metres across, is lying unsung and forlorn under the wing of a Second World War Black Widow fighter. The perspex
bubble over the cabin has been removed, and its instrument panel is in a cardboard box somewhere else. But you can still see where the edges were
charred in the effort to get John Frost's futuristic vision off the ground.
[Edited on 31-8-2003 by quaneeri]