A Puffalo! A Puffalo! My kingdom for a Puffalo!, Part 1

The Lake LA-4 fitted with an experimental air cushion landing gear by Bell Aerospace Corporation, Niagara Falls, New York, 1967. Anon. “Bag down and inflated…” Air Progress, March 1968, 47.

Welcome, my reading friend, and apologies to any English major who may stumble across this webpage. Yours truly was suitably intrigued when he came across the photo above. How could one resist? Resistance was indeed futile.

Once upon a time, an original start to a story if there ever was one, in late 1963 to be more precise, a subsidiary of Bell Aerospace Corporation by the name of Bell Aerosystems Company began to develop a concept. The American company’s internally-funded investigation centered upon the use of an air cushion landing gear on aircraft of various sizes. One of the co-inventors of the concept was an aerodynamicist who had left A.V. Roe Aircraft Limited, a subsidiary of A.V. Roe Canada Limited, itself a subsidiary of British giant Hawker Siddeley Group Limited, not too long before. While in Malton, near Toronto, Ontario, Thomas Desmond Earl had been heavily involved in the development of the Avro VZ-9AV Avrocar. And yes, yours truly may one day pontificate on this unsuccessful circular vertical take off and landing (VTOL) vehicle funded by the American military, but back to our story. And yes, as you rightly pointed out, my knowledgeable reading friend, Bell Aerospace was a subsidiary of industrial giant Textron Incorporated.

The Flight Dynamics Laboratory of the Systems Command of the United States Air Force (USAF) was sufficiently intrigued by the air cushion landing gear to provide small sums of money from 1966 onward, for wind tunnel testing. Bell Aerosystems mounted one of its systems on a Lake LA-4 single-engined four-seat amphibian, which flew in August 1967. The new concept, used both on take off and landing, on grass, ice, pavement and snow, showed promise. Indeed, in the early to mid 1970s, the company received a small sum of money from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to see if an air cushion landing gear could be used on the booster and orbiter elements of the proposed Space Transportation System. And yes, the Orbiter Vehicle is better known as the Space Shuttle. Other studies looked at the possibility of fitting such a device on drones / remotely piloted vehicles / unpiloted aerial vehicles.

Interestingly enough, Bell Aerosystems did not conduct the very first trials of an air cushion landing gear system. A small Soviet team seemingly modified a basic training monoplane around 1938-40. It is also possible that a twin engined dive bomber was modified around 1940-41. Are you an aviation enthusiast / wing nut, my reading friend? If so, you may be interested to know that the aforementioned aircraft were a Yakovlev UT-2 and a Petlyakov Pe-2, one of the great combat machines of the Second World War.

Where is this story going and what is a Puffalo, you ask? Two good questions, my enthusiastic and slightly stressed reading friend. See you next week for an answer.

Before we part company, however, your humble servant feels the urge, an irresistible urge, to provide you with a few words of wisdom on the LA-4 amphibian, the aircraft portrayed on the photo at the start of this article. I shall resist this urge, however, despite the loud complaints of the wing nut in my soul. All right, all right. I give up. Would you believe that the LA-4 used for the air cushion landing gear trials was still airworthy as of early 2018? Better yet, this historic aircraft is based in Ontario. If an LA-4 is worthy of inclusion in the national aerospace collection held by the Canada Aviation and Space museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, this one may very well be it.

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Rénald Fortier