Science: Flying Tubes

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Willard Custer has never forgotten the day back in 1925 when he had to dive into a barn to escape a big wind roaring through the Back Creek Valley of West Virginia. A few minutes later the roof took off. Custer, who knew that an airplane wing generates lift by moving through the air, wondered what force had raised the roof. After all, he reasoned, the barn had been standing still before the roof soared into space. No engineer, 26-year-old Willard Custer tackled the problem with an open mind.

Once he had learned that air, moving over a still airfoil, also generates lift, Custer went on to investigate the principle of the Venturi tube. He learned that the faster air flows through a tube with a narrow throat and flaring ends, the lower goes the pressure within the tube. With that primitive knowledge in hand, he decided that he could build a plane that would combine the advantages, of a helicopter with the speed of normal, fixed-wing aircraft. After some 20 years of tinkering, Custer completed a crude, full scale, flying model of a "Custer Channel Wing" airplane.

On either side of the stripped-down fuselage of a Taylor Cub, he fastened stubby wings curved into a smooth semicircle —the bottom halves of two 6-ft.-wide Venturi tubes. Toward the back of each wing he mounted an engine, its propeller tips just clearing the curve of the trailing edge. If his calculations were correct, when the spinning props sucked air through the U-shaped channels, Custer's plane would fly—like that West Virginia barn roof a quarter-century before.

Last week, at Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Airport, greying Willard Custer was busy proving that his weird contraption can develop tremendous lift. Even when tied to a pole to prevent forward motion, its engines putting out only 800 lbs. of thrust, the 1,100-lb. plane rose slowly off the ground and hovered in perfect balance. And Custer is satisfied that the first brief flights made with his channel wing mark a milestone in aviation. More advanced models, he said, will take off almost vertically, fly faster than a conventional plane using the same power, land like a helicopter and carry enormous payloads over great distances. Powered by jet engines, his wing, says Custer, will revolutionize the aircraft industry.

Like many an inventor, Custer is quick to brush off all future problems as mere "engineering details." Skeptical Air Force experts are waiting doubtfully for the results of further tests. But Taylorcraft, Inc. already has a channel wing ship on the drawing board.