V-173 U.S. Navy photograph via wikimedia.jpg

Seeing the Vought V-173 flying in the skies above Stratford, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a spacecraft from another planet. If you described its appearance to others, detailing its wingless, round, saucer-like fuselage, its slow, almost hovering movements in the air, those you told could be forgiven for thinking you were crazy.

But this flying saucer-like plane was real and wasn’t the work of visitors from another planet; instead it was made in Stratford during World War II. It was called the V-173 and known as the “flying pancake” for its flattened, round appearance. The wingless, or “all wing” experimental fighter plane was the brainchild of aeronautical engineer Charles Zimmerman and was developed for the U.S. Navy by Vought-Sikorsky in Stratford as a prototype to test Zimmerman’s outside-the-box theories about plane design. The craft’s strange shape allowed for near-vertical takeoff and landings, useful for operating from Navy ships. Though never used in combat, the aircraft proved important theories about flight, and may have inadvertently helped cause the UFO hysteria that swept the nation in the aftermath of World War II. Cue Twilight Zone music.

Zimmerman conceived of the craft in the early 1930s and won a 1933 design contest put on by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA. Impressed as NACA officials were with the design, the government organization felt it was too advanced to be developed. Zimmerman brought the design to Vought in 1937, and the Navy awarded a contract for a full-scale, proof-of-concept plane in 1940.

The aircraft earned Zimmerman some derision. In addition to the pancake nickname above, the plane was called the “Zimmer Skimmer,” and some doubted it would fly. The plane, like others in its day, had a wooden frame covered with a fabric skin. Two air-cooled continental engines provided a mere 80 horsepower.

Before flying it, Boone T. Guyton, Vought’s chief test pilot, took the plane on a variety of fast taxis and short hops on the runway at Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport, then Bridgeport Municipal Airport (though owned by the city of Bridgeport, the airport is located in Stratford).

On Nov. 23, 1942, Guyton piloted the strange-looking craft into the sky, where it performed well, completing a short takeoff and reaching 100 mph in a 13-minute flight that concluded with a short landing.

Despite its oddness, the aircraft was popular with pilots because it was maneuverable at low, nearly hovering speeds and was nearly impossible to stall, particularly useful when attempting the tricky maneuvers of landing on a ship at sea. Among the plane’s supporters was legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, who worked as a consultant for Vought at the time and flew the V-173 on several occasions.

According to one account, Lindbergh became a fan of the V-173 after witnessing Guyton’s close call in the aircraft. At the end of one test flight, Guyton attempted to land the plane on a nearby Stratford beach, but at the last second saw two sunbathers in his way. He made a sudden turn which flipped the plane onto the sand. The fact that Guyton survived the accident, and the plane and pilot were relatively unscathed, impressed Lindbergh.

V-173maidenflight-1942 via Wikimedia Commons.jpg

With flight tests completed, more advanced prototypes of the V-173 were ordered. A newer version was designated the XF5U-1 and had a larger engine and greater capabilities. Armed with 1,600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engines, it had a 425-mph top speed and 20-mph landing speed. Despite its capabilities, its development lagged as Vought focused on other planes, including the Corsair fighter plane, during World War II. When the war ended in 1945, the XF5U-1 was behind schedule and over budget. At the same time, the jet age began to dawn, shifting interest from propeller planes. The Navy canceled the XF5U-1 contract in March 1947.

During their brief use, the V-173 and the XF5U-1 proved Zimmerman’s theory of a plane capable of near-vertical takeoff and landing, a concept that became important for later aircraft. The crafts may also have helped generate decades’ worth of conspiracies.

After the V-173’s early flights in Connecticut and over Long Island Sound, there were reports of UFO sightings. In addition to talk of aliens, the craft fueled speculation that the U.S. government was developing its own flying saucer. A 1950 New York Times story on the spate of UFO sightings in post-war America included a picture of the V-173 with the words “COULD THIS BE ONE?” above it. The article cites the magazine U.S. News and World Report, claiming the saucers spotted across the country were “aircraft of a revolutionary design … accounts show these planes to be 105 feet in diameter and circular in shape. … Indications are, according to the magazine, that the ‘saucers’ are being developed by the Navy.”

The V-173 was restored by former Vought employees and is now on display at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas, where it is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. Pictures of the V-173 at the museum show a bright yellow, almost-cartoonish aircraft that is a cross between Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon and something from The Jetsons. Imagining it in the air, moving slowly, appearing to hover, it’s easy to see why some people thought it was not of this world.