Is it a bird? Is it a man?
Nick Collins (article courtesy ‘Skywings’)
Nick Collins unearths a remarkable Cold War glider design
The accompanying document was picked out by a friend of mine who works at the Patent Office in Newport. He was searching through Russian patents from the 1960s, in the heat of the Cold War, looking for 'prior art' on parachute design, and turned this up. He thought I might be interested. I was!
He tells me from the details in his translation that this skydiving ‘mini-glider’ is
likely to have been more than just a paper drawing. It appears that the intention was for military use, whereby dozens of paratroopers would be flown in at high level in a Tupolev transport plane (similar to the RAF's Hercules) and would launch from the large payload door at the rear.
In a standing position the wings rotate on pivots around the shoulder joints so that they point downwards, just clearing the floor. Details in the description strongly suggest that prototypes were made and actually flown. Presumably upon exiting the rear of the plane the pilot-skydiver would rotate the wings forward into their flying position. The structure seems to be of solid construction around these joints to take the flight loads.
Control was by ailerons and elevators actuated by the pilot's hands on outstretched arms inside the wings. Construction was of aluminium and fibreglass, and the complete apparatus must have been a fair weight. Statistics quoted give a 30:1 glide ratio at 86mph! The intended purpose was to glide into a landing zone undetected, the small size making the radar signature invisible. From a drop height of 20,000ft, these craft could have had a theoretical glide range of over a hundred miles!
Like me, you are now thinking – but how did they land? The patent document
shows three options. A conventional parachute pack on the back that was intended to bring down the whole glider and pilot. Alternatively, a pop-out backplate was envisaged, which allowed the pilot to separate from the glider and the chute then deployed from this backplate. Presumably this made landing rolls much easier! The third option is definitely not for the faint-hearted. One of the drawings shows wheels built into the structure of the ‘pod’ so that the pilot could actually land on a flat runway! 70mph with your face 20cm from the deck. It could only have been the Russians: ‘You will fly this’! The documentation doesn’t
reveal which method was actually used.
I can see it now: like a swarm of bees, 500 crack Russian paratroopers gliding into Heathrow in close-packed formation, landing straight down the centre of the runway. The machines would have been too small and too numerous for
conventional weapons to have had much effect against them. We wouldn’t have stood a chance!
Seriously, I think this design has some potential. In the grey zone between hang gliding and skydiving the boundaries are becoming blurred. Hang gliders can now almost free fall, practically straight down at speeds approaching those of free-fall parachutists, while skydivers are developing winged suits endowing them with significant glide potential. With modern materials like carbon-fibre and advance plastics this Russian micro-glider could have a future. Now, if you took one out in a Force 8 gale and launched from the top of Rhossili, I wonder how fast…