Hoax Aircraft

For reasons of their own, on occasion people wilfully fabricate claims that some mythical or junk plane actually flew, or whatever. This is my small collection of deliberate hoaxes and wild stabs in the dark that fooled more people than they should have. Note that dotty technologists, financial investment bait, Nazi "Wunderwaffen", and UFOs are so widespread and fool so few that listing them here serves no useful purpose; most are excluded, though a few oddballs make it through on their own merits. The hoaxes are listed here in chronological order of the fictitious events.

Vimana

A Vimana from the Vaimānika Shāstra

Mythical flying chariots or palaces called Vimana appear in classical Indian literature. They would not be mentioned here if one Capt. Anand Bodas had not claimed that they were real. The Vaimānika Shāstra is a fake historical text on the science of aeronautics, purported to have been received through telepathic communication around 1920. Bodas swallowed it whole and presented an analysis, apparently in all seriousness, to a session of the Indian Science Congress on Vedic Science through Sanskrit. The whole piece of nonsense was soon debunked, but it retreated to a bone-headed niche of believers who still try to wrap it in plausible period technology. The myth of the Vimana has thus survived to become a recurrent Internet meme.

Ader Avion

Frenchman Clement Ader built and tested a succession of three ingenious steam-powered, bat-winged flying machines in the 19th century. His first, the Éole, managed a small, straight-line hop indoors. The next, the Avion II, failed to fly at all. He then persuaded the French military to sponsor his Avion III. It too failed.

Years later, after others such as the Wrights had flown, Ader claimed that the Éole and Avion III both had after all, and in France especially he was respected enough to be quite widely believed. But the French army, in part stung by his fairy tale and the controversy it provoked, eventually published their report on the trials, demonstrating clearly that it had not achieved any such thing. Ader's claim collapsed and he fell into disgrace.

Ader's Avion III in uncharacteristic pose

Langley's Aerodrome hops after Curtiss' ministrations

Langley Aerodrome

Samuel Pierpoint Langley was Secretary of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution when in 1903 his Aerodrome flopped into the Potomac river from the roof of a houseboat, dunking its pilot. Only a few days later the lowly Wright brothers did fly, and a couple of years after that Langley died. The Smithsonian was unwilling to admit that it had been beaten by a couple of no-account bicycle makers and insisted that Langley had flown before the Wrights.

A few years later the overly self-important Smithsonian set out to prove its point by fair means or foul. They employed the successful designer Glenn Curtiss to refurbish the Aerodrome and to make whatever modifications it took to make it fly. He added floats to make it a proper waterplane, reshaped the wings and rejigged the tail, until in 1914 it succeeded in making short but unsustainable hops. The august Institute promptly published a photograph of it during a hop, claimed that it was flying properly and endorsed it as proof of Langley's priority.

The Wrights were so outraged that they loaned their historic Flyer to the British Science Museum on the other side of the Atlantic, where it was put on display. They challenged the Smithsonian head on and the legal dispute rumbled on for decades, until the shameful fraud was eventually uncovered and the truth revealed. The Smithsonian were publicly humiliated, forced to to accept the Wrights' claims and back down.

But now, to salvage their pride, the Smithsonian wanted that original Flyer for their own museum after all. Orville, the surviving brother, did a deal with them; I let you have it, but you promise to display a notice that it was first to fly, and never to dispute that claim again. The deal has come to be known as "history by contract", as it forbids the Smithsonian from considering evidence in support of anybody else at all.

Meanwhile the claims of Gustav Whitehead were gaining supporters, eventually even an editor of the equally prestigious directory, Jane's All the World's Aircraft. The Smithsonian responded diligently in accordance with its contract, scoffing at the claims. In this ongoing tussle, gagging agreements abound and fraud probably does too, but which side is fraudulent remains clear as mud; perhaps both are. Suffice to say that the Smithsonian has a track record of dishonesty and bias yet refuses to renounce the contract – it even has the brass neck to plead that its good name should be enough! I know who I don't believe any more.

The Tillinghast airship

Visualisation as described to a contemporary illustrator

Wallace Tillinghast picked up the phone and rang his local newspaper in 1909. He spun them a yarn about his wonderful new airship, as aeroplanes were still sometimes called. Of monoplane form with boxkite stabilizers on long "feelers" or booms, it had an extremely powerful 120 hp engine and could fly for 300 miles at over 100 miles an hour. He was flying it regularly at night, and had flown to Boston and back. All this at a time when 60 hp, and 60 mph for 30 miles, was state-of-the-art, and night flying was deeply hazardous and unknown. Soon the press was alive with the story, local residents increasingly reported corroborating evidence. Then the mass sightings and self-deceptions began, hundreds all claiming to have "seen" some particular flight or observed some detail, perhaps its framework or its crew of two. Tillinghast continued to act the part, going out in the evenings and coming home suitably travel-worn in the mornings.

The joke lasted a week or so, until reality slowly dawned; not least Tillighast and his familiy's wearying of the (then as now) unyielding celebrity attention. A month later and Tillinghast's airship was dead.

This is a similar story to many UFO incidents, not only more recent but also further back in the late Victorian era when gasbag airships and, further back still, supernatural beings (and perhaps even Vimana) played the imagined role. I include it here for its, possibly unique, choice of a fixed-wing aeroplane as the vehicle of the hoax.

Marton X/V or RMI-8

The RMI was the Hungarian Repülo Muszaki Intézet, or Aviation Technical Institute. Among its designs, the RMI-8 is also said to be known as the Marton X/V, a re-engined and license-built variant of the Fokker D.XXIII prototype twin-engined, twin-boom fighter.

The story seems to have originated with one László Winkler, otherwise quite respected, and is believed by many to be real. For example we find it earnestly described in Hegedűs, Ernő and Ozsváth, Sándor; "Többfeladatú Harci Repülőgépek Rendszeresítésének Hatása a Német és Magyar Repülőipari Kapacitások Kihasználtságára a Második Világháborúban" (The Impact of the Systematization of Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft on the Utilization of German and Hungarian Aviation Capacities in the Second World War), Katonai Logisztika (Military Logistics), Vol 21, Issue 2, 2013. pp.149-177.

Yet it is a fake. The downward slide began with an unattributed drawing published by Winkler, annotated in his handwriting and apparently digitally scanned or photographed. Oddly, the carburettor air intakes were on the same side, whereas if one engine were turned backwards in pusher configuration its carburettor should have crossed over to the other side of the plane. But the dead giveaway was that it was pixel-identical to its twin in the digital image; the drawing was a composite image that had been post-edited by a forger who slipped up on the engineering design.

The claimed replacement engines were twice as powerful as the originals, and hence noticeably larger. Yet the drawings show them essentially the same size. Winkler published a cutaway, since widely circulated. I have juxtaposed it here with a cutaway of the real D.VIII and it is obvious that the D.VIII cutaway has been ripped off and photoshopped once agin. The new engines had to be shrunk to fit in. Indeed, the engine artwork was little changed, not even the mounting frame and attachment points which would have in reality been necessary, rather the cowling was just tweaked slightly to match the necessary curves, only too small. Then again, the airframe would have had to have been radically strengthened to take the extra weight at higher speeds, but that is not altered at all. Surely a fake drawing is not proof of a fake project? Well, if it fakes an impossible construction then yes, the construction is still impossible, and still therefore fake.

A series of self-confessed photoshop "period" images of an expertly-made 1:72 scale plastic model innocently appeared at one point, crafted to see whether sufficiently realistic detail could be included at such a small scale. Yes it could, and others subsequently peddled them as the real thing.

Fokker D.VIII above, Marton X/V below

Faked image showing the quality of the 1:72 scale model

Further embellishments to the story appeared from other authors, including a spurious test pilot's flight log entry, and with some accounts contradicting each other and giving different histories of the D.VIII and/or X/V programme, despite equal assurances of truth. For example only D.VIII ever built was a prototype with its wings built of wood to save time and cost; the intended production design was to be of metal but was never completed. There never was a production design, not even on paper. Yet the fakers did not know this and told stories of all-metal "copies" in series production.

Blohm & Voss P.214 MGRP Mistel

This is more a catalogue of hoaxes than a single one. Some or perhapse even all of them may be more errors or wild guesses than outright hoaxes, but certainly their historical provenance was over-egged by respectable historians who should have known better. The B&V P 214, MGRP, Mistel and the accomapnying depiction were all real projects, but they were all different.

The MGRP was a proposal for a two-stage composite ramjet-powered attack plane. It was one of several related design studies by Karl Stöckel at the DVL, and had nothing to do with Blohm & Voss. Moreover, the design which became misidentified as the "Blohm & Voss MGRP" was one of his other studies, known simply as an aerial torpedo carrier. Quite how the misidentification arose is unclear, but it was well established by 1982.

Stöckel's MGRP

Stöckel's aerial torpedo carrier

Mistel was a similar composite attack aircraft programme, though conceived to use up old aircraft which were too outdated for regular fighter or bomber missions. It saw some success and towards the end of the war the idea was adopted for some advanced proposals, such as Stöckel's. There is no evidence the Mistel project name was ever attached to any of them at the time, nevertheless it tends to be these days.

Almost nothing is known about the B&V P 214. Though among the more obscure of B&V's projects, with no drawing or physical description known (nor was there a period between the P and the 214), company documents discussing its operation and performance show that it was a small, rocket-powered aircraft comparable to the Me 163 Komet and similarly intended for anti-aircraft interception. Its description as an "manned anti-aircraft bomb" and the accompanying discussion suggests that it might have been a kind of semi-suicide craft, where the pilot would set it on course to ram its target and then bale out. This was a concept studied for at least one other German project. Some historians have described the it as one of a series of outboard-tail "batwinged" jet projects, which B&V studied in some depth around that time. Where this description came from is unclear and it cannot be verified, but it was certainly around in 1963. However the wingspan of 9.5 m (31 ft) given by one such historian is more appropriate to the jet-powered batwing series and is not really consistent with a small semi-suicide rocket rammer. We may never know what it might have looked like.

What we can say is that, somewhere along the way since then, the P 214 got spuriously identified in people's minds with the MGRP mixup.

Around 2017 the US Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, had acquired what were claimed to be original parts from the P.214. It was at this point that the fairytale aspect appears to have elevated itself to the status of a hoax, for the cockpit parts can hardly have originated in what was never more than some preliminary design studies, and somebody must have – consciously or unconsciously – turned the misidentification into a full-blown hoax. The unfortunate museum incorporated them into the cockpit of a full-scale mock-up of the full-blown myth, the "Blohm & Voss P.214 Mistel" which was in fact Stöckel's aerial torpedo carrier design. Sadly, they appear to have since erased all trace of the mock-up from their web site. Stöckel's aerial torpedo carrier is of no less historical or visual interest for being correctly identified, so it is to be hoped that they will one day feel able to put it back in the public eye with an updated identification.

"B&V P.214" at the Military Aviation Museum

Boeing 797

The artwork that hoaxed the world

Around the turn of the millennium, Boeing were studying the blended-wing-body (BWB) concept. Concept artwork of a futuristic BWB airliner was published in Popular Science, November 2003. Three years later, the image was circulated in a hoax email, claiming that Boeing were indeed developing it as the 797, a huge 1,0000-passenger monster. The hoax was so widely promoted and believed that Boeing were forced to issue a denial.

Boeing were indeed working on the X-48, a small BWB drone to flight-test the configuration for NASA, and flew it the next year. They claimed that it was for non-commercial purposes only, though Flight at least assumed they had an airliner in mind. Today the BWB airliner idea is perhaps gaining traction within Boeing at last, especially as their deadly rival Airbus recently began promoting their own take on it. But 1,000 seats? No chance, those days are gone.

Boeing 737 MAX

More a hoax safety regime than an hoax aeroplane as such. But such a scam had been unheard-of in a century of Western aviation and it surely looms as the most tragic aircraft hoax of all time.

Big, low-slung, forward-mounted engine on a 737 MAX

Faced with a new model from their deadly rival Airbus, Boeing desperately wanted to beat it to the market and maintain their own Model 737 sales. The quickest route to market was a re-engined 737 NG, with a new and more advanced engine. But the new engines were bigger and would scrape on the ground, so Boeing moved them forwards out from under the wing until there was room to set them up high enough. That upset the balance, making the plane wobbly and unsafe when it was nose-high during takeoff and landing. Pilots would need to be retrained, which took the airlines more time, and Boeing's established sales strategy was to claim that this was unnecessary. They had not only promised as much to at least one airline, but also contracted to huge penalty repayments if retraining was needed after all. So they decided to add a new safety system, the MCAS, to mimic the old handling qualities. Except, it didn't really, it simply warned the pilot if the nose was too high and then automatically forced the nose back down again. This crude fix should still have meant re-training the pilots.

Here came the hoax, in the form of an outright scam. Boeing played down any cockpit controls for MCAS, integrating some of its functions with other controls so that disabling it caused other side effects. They even disabled its display warning on the standard fit, so that the pilots did not appear to need to learn about it. Boeing lied to the certification authority, the FAA, and hid MCAS functions from them. The FAA duly signed the plane off as needing no pilot retraining. The airline pilots were given a short update to read, explaining a little about the MCAS, and various hints were scattered piecemeal about more operating notes, advising how MCAS would react to different controls. But few pilots were told to read that deeply. The hoax was set, ripe for disaster.

And disaster it was. Engineering faults at every level could cause MCAS to operate and push the nose down repeatedly. Pilots did not know to take the necessary precautions and, when faced with the problem, instinctively did what they were trained to do, which was the wrong thing. Two planes crashed, killing all on board. Boeing paid billions in compensation and fines, and at the time of writing the first criminal indictment of an involved employee has been issued; it is said that more are likely to follow. This was one hoax that bit back, and bit back hard.

The sad irony is that, not long after the design was frozen, to resolve a quite different problem anticipated on the next, forthcoming version, another Boeing engineer invented an extending undercarriage that increases ground clearance but still fits in the same bay when retracted. Had Boeing been less greedy and taken the time to do the job properly, there would have been no need to reposition the engines at all.

Updated 19 May 2022