Aeronautical engineering is a complicated line of work. There are countless factors to be considered when building aircraft, and it’s safe to say that only the best and brightest get into it.
Or maybe not, because somehow airplanes keep making it past the design stage with fatal flaws that anyone with a bit of common sense should have spotted.
The Bachem-BA349 Natter Broke Pilots’ Necks
A Nazi plane developed towards the end of WW2, the Natter was intended to be a disposable aircraft – cheap, simple and incredibly fast. The plan was for it to take off vertically, like a rocket, and for the pilot and jet engine to parachute down afterwards instead of landing. Unfortunately, the plane was built almost entirely out of wood and the canopy was held shut with a repurposed furniture hinge. This turned out to be somewhat problematic for a plane that could reach speeds of over 600 mph.
On its first manned test flight, the canopy, which had an attached headrest, was torn clear off. As soon as this happened, the pilot’s head snapped back into the solid bulkhead, either breaking his neck, knocking him out, or more likely both. The engine was simply too powerful for the shoddy construction to handle, effectively turning the Natter into little more than a neck-snapping machine.
The Blackburn Botha Was Bad At Everything
Designed to be a WW2 recon plane and torpedo bomber, this British plane was uniquely terrible at everything it did.
Firstly, it was blind. The cockpit was hemmed in by propeller engines, meaning pilots couldn’t see anything that wasn’t directly in front of them. This made it useless for recon. Secondly, it couldn’t bomb anything on account of the engine being too weak to carry both a payload and a bombing crew. Thirdly, when it was finally relegated to use as a training plane, its difficult handling quickly became responsible for way too many trainee casualties.
It looked fine on paper, but in practice the Botha was just really stupid plane, completely unable to do anything. In the end, the only use these planes saw at was towing around targets for trainees in less-crappy aircraft to fire at.
The Christmas Bullet Had Floppy Wings
The Christmas Bullet was to aircraft what Scientology is to organised religion. Superficially similar, but just a quick-talking scam at heart. Despite having never designed planes before, Dr William Christmas managed to convince enough investors that he knew what he was doing. His fundraising culminated in 1919, with a test flight. The wings quickly peeled away and the pilot was killed in the crash.
Looking at that plane, the outcome seems obvious. Dr Christmas was very enthusiastic about the strut-free, flexible-wing design and kept insisting that it was superior in every way. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that flappy, floppy wings are a terrible idea.
They’re carrying most of the weight, so they need to be strong. But undeterred by this, Christmas called the first test flight a success and built a second, identical plane. Once again, the wings came off and the unfortunate pilot was killed. In the end, Christmas never achieved his dream of revolutionizing aircraft, but he did go on to enjoy a lucrative career in scamming investors.
The Douglas DC-10 Was Prone To Explosive Decompression
While obvious design flaws were a lot more common from the ‘20s-‘40s, as people were pressured by the wars and still learning about flight, human mistakes are timeless. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 is still in use today, but when first released in 1970, it had one fatal flaw that caused several horrific accidents: The cargo doors opened outwards. It made sense on paper.
By having cargo doors that open outwards, you can fit more stuff into the hold. The downside is that you need super-strong locks on those doors in order to counter the outward-force from a pressurised interior. The vital interior lock consisted of several hooks that would hold the door closed.
However, there was no way of knowing when they weren’t properly engaged. It all looked the same from the outside, while the cockpit indicator light didn’t check the hooks. This made it very easy to take off without the doors properly closed. When this happened, they’d suddenly pop open at a certain altitude, resulting in explosive decompression strong enough to yank the plane’s floor into the cargo hold. After a few such accidents, this problem was fixed bit by bit. These days, DC-10s are still one of the most popular cargo planes around.
The Kalinin K-7 Vibrated Itself Apart
The Soviet Union’s Kalinin K-7 was very big, very ambitious and very unfortunate. It’s kind of surprising the behemoth could fly at all, given its specifications, but on the whole it performed admirably. Or at least it would have, if not for one big problem: it would dismantle itself as it flew.
In order to get aloft, the plane needed seven powerful engines. As it so happened, these engines ran at a frequency which made the entire steel airframe vibrate. Immediately after take-off, the plane would basically try to shake itself apart. This would be alarming under the best circumstances, but in the case of a 20 ton beast with a 200 foot wingspan, it made it almost impossible to fly. Eventually a test flight killed 14 people, including the lead designer. The idea of resonating vibrations was so little understood at the time that the Soviet Union initially suspected sabotage. In the end, they simply shelved the project and never came back to it.