In 1965, when the latest Ian Fleming novel was published, the world once again marvelled at James Bond’s futuristic gadgets: the Solar Agitator, the Camera Rocket-Launcher, the Imitation Nipple. Yet the most enviable of the gadgets was surely the villain Scaramanga’s airborne AMC Matador, equipped with jet-engine and wings. But this was not the first time someone dreamed of such an invention, and originally, the dream was not confined to the pages of a book.
It was 20 years earlier, in 1942, that Austrian engineer Raoul Hafner of the British Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE) first started design-work on a prototype of the ‘Rotabuggy’. In an attempt to transport off-road vehicles rapidly to the battlefield, where they could give support to airborne forces, Hafner’s idea was to combine Willys MB jeeps with autogyros, and fly them to the combat zone. The rotorcraft team of the AFEE had enjoyed some previous success in the development of the ‘Rotachute’ – using a rotor rather than a parachute as a means of pinpoint-landing troops in enemy territory. This led to the idea of carrying heavier loads on the same principle, and Hafner proposed the Rotabuggy.
Initial flight trials in 1943 had the Rotabuggy being towed behind a Diamond lorry. When the lorry proved too slow to get the Rotabuggy in the air, a more powerful vehicle, a supercharged 4.5ltr Bentley, was brought in. Far more successful, the Bentley had the Rotabuggy in the air gliding at 45mph. By 16 November 1943, success seemed assured.
Two men were required to pilot the aircraft: one to drive the buggy on the ground, the other to fly the airborne buggy using a control column. When tests progressed to the Rotabuggy being towed behind an Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley bomber, problems arose. The severe vibrations caused by the speed and force of the bomber exhausted the Rotabuggy pilot, who had to hang onto the control column as it thrashed about the cockpit violently and continuously. No sooner was this problem addressed than others occurred.
Although, when loaded with concrete to simulate the weight of weapons and pilots, a Willys MB could emerge unscathed from a drop of 2.35m, there were some hairy moments in testing. No pilots were severely injured, but questions began to be raised as to the safety and feasibility of the project.
Just as Hafner was beginning to come up with solutions, the fickle AFEE got themselves caught up in another, -more promising project: gliders. The development of safe, efficient gliders such as the Waco Hadrian and Airspeed Horsa, both capable of transporting military vehicles, marked the end of the line for the Rotabuggy. Realising that his moment had passed, but still enthused by the success of the original Rotachute, Hafner began clutching at straws. If not the Rotabuggy, perhaps the Rotatank? A modified Valentine tank towed behind a bomber and dropped onto the battlefield?
Hafner, in danger of being accused of being a one-trick-pony, gave up. The Rotatank never left the drawing board, and the flying car would have to wait 20 years before re-emerging as one of Ian Fleming’s show-stoppers.