The year was 1956 and Daniel Perkins had flown his inflatable winged airplane. Indeed, something very special happened in aviation history on March 7, 1956. As astonishing as his success was, Daniel Perkins was not the first to undertake inflatable airplane experiments. This is the history of inflatable airplanes.
In the early 1950s, Daniel Perkins set himself to solving the problem of an inflatable airplane. As an engineer with Britain’s Royal Aircraft Establishment, located at Cardington, UK, he was ideally suited to the task. The primary goal was to develop a man-portable aircraft that could be deflated, rolled into a bag and carried from place to place, either by hand, in a motorcycle or by car — in the “boot” as the English like to call the trunk of a car (my English friends remind me that elephants have trunks, not cars). Ultimately, he elected to roll the plane up and hang it from the front of truck, right off the front bumper!
Daniel Perkins wasn’t the first to experiment with inflatable planes, however. Long before — actually decades earlier — Taylor McDaniel started work on an inflatable rubber glider in 1931. His experiments with inflatables, which were likely the first in history, proved the concept and pioneered many innovations that would later be used by others — among the best solutions was to use inflatable rubber tubes as strengthening members within the wings and fuselage.
World War II brought an end to any experimentation in the field. Military aviation wasn’t ready to fool around with outlandish ideas like inflatable aircraft (although the US Navy used blimps extensively for coastal and convoy patrol, with considerable success).
After World War II, interest was revived. Many pilots had been lost because they’d been shot down behind enemy lines, and couldn’t be rescued in time. This problem recurred in the Korean War. Inquiring minds wondered whether some sort of aircraft could be developed that could be air-dropped to them and set up on the spot. The pilots could then fly themselves to safety. In Britain and the USA, these ideas were followed up.
The Goodyear company, makers of the famous blimps, developed what they called the Inflatoplane. They gave their initial prototype the internal project code of GA-33. The wings, tail unit and cockpit enclosure were constructed of a material Goodyear called Airmat. This consisted of two walls of rubberized fabric connected by nylon cords, with air pumped between them. The fuselage was of single-layer rubberized fabric.
The prototype GA-33 made its first flight at Olathe, Kansas, on May 28th, 1957. Piloted by Goodyear’s test pilot, Richard Ulm, it flew in a severe thunderstorm – which must have been an interesting experience!
The Inflatoplane was an ingenious piece of work. The aircraft was packed into a container about the size of a cabin trunk, rolled up into a compact bundle. It was designed to be air-dropped by parachute in this container, then pulled out for erection.
It would be wheeled into position and unrolled. It would be inflated either by a motor-driven air-pump, or by a cylinder of compressed air. Once inflated, the propeller would be attached to the engine and the aircraft prepared for flight.
Now, lets jump to modern days inflatable wings:
And here is AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL bonus: