During WWII there were many strange and unusual vehicles which were created in an effort to either surprise, outwit or outgun the Axis powers. Many of the most unusual vehicles were aircraft, as engineers and designers were, as always, pushing the boundaries of what was possible.
The Hafner Rotabuggy may not be one of the most beautiful aircraft ever created, in fact it probably ranks fairly low on the mechanical beauty scale. It was an experimental British aircraft that was basically a Willys MB Jeep combined with an autogyro. The thinking was that the Hafner Rotabuggy could be towed through the air by a larger transport aircraft, and then released where it would glide down to the earth and assist troops near the front line.
The prototype Hafner Rotabuggy was built in 1942 by the company R. Malcolm Ltd. It was designed to fulfil a design brief from the Air Ministry which called for a “Special Rotating Wing Glider”.
Preliminary testing showed that thanks to its rugged construction a Willys Jeep could be dropped from heights up to 2.35 metres (7.7 ft) without damage to the vehicle! That meant the vehicle could handle a rough landing, and carry on with its mission. Onto the Jeep a 40.5 foot (12.4 metre) diameter rotor was attached, along with a tail fairing and fins, but no rudders. Two men were required to fly the Hafner Rotabuggy; one to drive it on the ground, and one to pilot it in the air using a control column.
The first trials were conducted using a truck to drag the vehicle into the air. However the truck couldn’t get up enough speed to get the Rotabuggy airborne. Shortly after, a supercharged 4.5 litre Bentley was called in to get the job done. It worked. The first flight was conducted on 27th November 1943, and the Rotabuggy achieved glide speeds of up to 45 mph. Later tests were done using an Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley bomber.
The first round of serious testing showed that the Hafner Rotabuggy suffered from severe vibrations at speeds over 45 mph. But with a few modifications it managed to comfortably hit speeds of up to 70mph.
On February 1st 1944 the Hafner Rotabuggy made its most successful, but also last flight. It flew for 10 minutes at an altitude of 400 feet (122 meters) and hit a top speed of 65 mph. The flight was described as “highly satisfactory”. However around the same time conventional gliders were entering service which had the ability to carry Jeeps – effectivley making the Rotabuggy surplus to requirement.
A replica of the Hafner Rotabuggy is kept on display at the Museum of Army Flying in Hampshire, England.