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4 of the Worst Aircraft in History

In many respects the world’s worst aircraft are like their infamous 4-wheeled counterparts on the previous “Biggest Flops in Automotive History” video.  

Like Cadillac Cimmarons, Edsels and Chevy EV-1s with wings, they’re among the worst flying machines for a variety of reasons including lousy design, atrocious safety records, and entirely too much marketing hype that far exceeded the aircraft’s actual abilities. 

Now let’s take a look at 4 of the worst aircraft in history. 

1. Blackburn B-25 Roc

Blackburn Roc
Blackburn Roc B-25 by Emoscopes is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Blackburn Roc was one of those rare flying machines that was already obsolete when it first took to the air, in this case in late 1938. 

The ungainly – actually downright ugly – Roc was developed based on specifications from the Royal Navy for a two-seat fleet defense fighter-bomber capable of operating from aircraft carriers. 

But though the design met the Royal Navy’s specs, the resulting aircraft was heavy, underpowered, and about as aerodynamic as a dump truck.

And not surprisingly, it’s now a perennial entrant on ‘Worst Aircraft in History” lists just like this one, and with good reason.  

But despite faulty planning, poor design and abysmal performance, the Roc did feature a few innovative features, the most prominent of which was the large machine gun turret protruding from the fuselage behind the cockpit.

In the years leading up to World War II, “turret fighters” were all the rage in England, but despite its abundant drawbacks, research and development went full-speed ahead and production got underway less than a year later. 

The idea was that a manned turret bristling with four Browning .303 machine guns that were capable of firing in a wide field around the aircraft would easily be able to fend off faster and more agile adversaries, and therefore make it more likely that both machine and crew would survive in combat. 

However, with a gutless 815 horsepower Bristol Perseus XII engine, 8,000-pound (3,600 kg) maximum takeoff weight and a top speed of just 220 miles per hour – attainable only when using short bursts of “emergency’ power” – the Roc’s pitiful cruising speed of just 135 miles per hour (217 km/h) made it easy pickings despite its defensive machine guns, which themselves were largely responsible for its woes due to added weight and drag. 

Though it was no fighter, the Roc was a competent dive bomber capable of descending on its targets from angles approaching 70 degrees, but it was often said tongue-in-cheek that it could barely catch even the slowest naval vessels, and in reality the only aircraft it could outpace were the slowest German seaplanes typically relegated to maritime reconnaissance duties. 

Rocs were fitted with universal carrier racks under each wing which could accommodate a wide range of munitions including 30 and 50-pound incendiary and 100 and 250-pound high-explosive bombs, but with a total ordinance capacity of less than 1,000 pounds (453kg) it was far from a heavy hitter. 

Though its lack of aerodynamics, weight and meager power plant usually got the blame for its shortcomings, the Roc’s propeller didn’t help either. 

During early testing the diameter was increased by nearly 3 inches (7.6 cm) on each blade to enable the prop to move more air, which at least theoretically increased both top speed and climb rate, but the resulting loss of engine RPMs made the lumbering Roc even slower than it would have been otherwise. 

Other drawbacks included a lack of wing-mounted machine guns that were standard on other fighters, interceptors and dive bombers of the era, and a relatively narrow undercarriage which made the Roc unstable during carrier landings in strong crosswinds. 

In the end, how an aircraft barely able to attain 200 mph in the era of Focke Wulf 190s and ME 262s was expected to survive in combat is anybody’s guess. 

On the bright side, though just 136 units were produced, one Roc did have the distinction of shooting down a German Ju 88, one of the world’s fastest bombers.

There’s no word on whether the Ju 88 crew survived, but if they did, they must’ve had a heck of a time explaining that one to Luftwaffe brass. 

2. F-104 Starfighter

Billed as a cutting edge all-purpose aircraft capable of propelling western air forces into the future, the F-104 “Starfighter” was an expensive, overhyped dud with an abominable safety record that included nearly 300 accident losses and more than 100 deaths. 

In fact, it’s no wonder the German pilots who flew 104s referred to them as “Widow Makers,” and US Air Force aviators weren’t thrilled with theirs either. 

Dubbed “the missile with a man inside,” the Buck Rogers-esque plane featured stubby razor sharp wings, a long fuselage with a pointy nose, and monstrous General Electric J79 afterburning turbojet that delivered nearly 16,000 pounds of thrust – enough to push the machine to 1,450 mph, or Mach 2.2.

First taking to the air in the early ‘60s, it looked the part of slick new fighter, but its flashy exterior hid a myriad of design flaws.  

Designed by Kelly Johnson’s crew at Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works – of U2 and SR-71 Blackbird fame – the plane was meant to serve in reconnaissance, fighter, interceptor, bomber and ground attack roles.

Unfortunately, its wings were so short and narrow that they couldn’t carry fuel, guns or landing gear components, all of which had to be stuffed into the fuselage around the hulking engine. 

Ironically however, it was the wings – along with the powerful engine – that allowed the plane to achieve the blistering speeds and impressive climb rates for which it was most well-known. 

But without multiple drop tanks 104s had paltry ranges, and even worse, their turn performance was atrocious – a huge drawback for a frontline combat aircraft that might meet much more maneuverable enemy aircraft like MiG-21s in the skies over Europe. 

In addition, F-104’s initial radar package wasn’t particularly powerful which made it suitable only as a daytime and clear weather fighter/interceptor. 

With a 20 mm Vulcan rotary cannon, heat-seeking missiles and a 4,000 pound (1,815 kg) bomb load it was potent, but its deficiencies dwarfed its attributes.  

But though the USAF quietly pushed the unwanted plane to the proverbial sidelines well before it was originally slated to be retired, it was hawked relentlessly to foreign countries like Italy, Turkey and West Germany. 

West Germany alone was the not-so-proud recipient of more than 900 examples, most of which were upgraded versions capable of operating in inclement weather as interceptors and ground attack aircraft, though at 2,000 pounds heavier than the American version with no corresponding increase in power, it wasn’t particularly well suited to either role.

Especially while engaged in ground attack, the aircraft needed to respond quickly to pilot inputs quickly, like when the ground was approaching at 400 miles per hour (643 km/h), which the plane just couldn’t do satisfactorily, again thanks largely to the small surface area of its wings.   

To heap insult upon injury, it was discovered that Lockheed executives had bribed German officials into purchasing the F-104 when it obviously wasn’t what they needed, but the scandal was swept under the rug after telling procurement documents were mysteriously destroyed.

Nearly immediately after introduction in the early ‘60s, aircraft losses and deaths began piling up both stateside and in Europe. 

In the case of West Germany, many pilots had been trained at Luke Air Force Base in sunny Arizona, but they had serious trouble taking what they’d learned back to their home country where cold wet weather was common. 

Though not usually a big deal, with the F-104 such meteorological trivialities were often the difference between life and death in an unmaneuverable plane with exceedingly high stall, approach and landing speeds, yet again, thanks to its tiny wings.

Statistics show that in West Germany alone between one and two dozen Starfighters crashed every single year between 1968 and 1972, and even after significant safety modifications were made losses continued at the rate of about 10 annually until the aircraft was phased out in the late ‘80s. 

Determined to make the most of their investment, Italy flew their 104s until 2004, despite losing nearly a third of its fleet to crashes in the previous decades. 

3. MiG 23

MIG - 23 jet fight the Worst Aircraft of All Time
MIG – 23

Designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau in the early ’60s, the MiG-23 was the Soviet Union’s premiere third-generation fighter when it entered service in 1970. 

Meant to combat the new breed of big multirole American fighter-bombers like the F-4 Phantom and F-111, like the latter it featured variable geometry wings which optimized performance at nearly any speed and altitude. 

But like in the F-111 and later the F-14 Tomcat, the revolutionary “swing wings” – which were capable of sweeping between 16 and 72 degress – created at least as many problems as they solved. 

Despite that, the aircraft – NATO codename Flogger – was large, powerful and blisteringly fast, thanks to its slippery lines and Tumansky R-29-300 jet engine that produced more than 27,000 pounds (12,500 kg) of thrust, which could propel the 40,000-pound (18,150 kg) machine past Mach 2.4, or nearly 1,900 mph (2,900 km/h).

But while the Flogger was impressive in some areas, British and American pilots and intelligence officers tasked with evaluating it determined that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. 

First, it was much larger, heavier and more expensive than its predecessor the MiG-21 Fishbed. 

It was also difficult and costly to maintain, sucked down fuel at an alarming rate, and sported an engine that needed to be changed out after just a few hundred hours of flying time, which required the entire fuselage to be disassembled into two pieces first. 

In addition, its engine was more suitable for an interceptor as opposed to a dogfighter, because under high G loads extreme torque could cause the compressor shaft to bend and the turbine blades to fly into the intake destroying the engine instantly.

In fact, the MiG-23 was such a colossal letdown to export customers around the world that many nations who bought them opted to keep their old MiG-21s in service instead of using their new birds. 

Though it was definitely egg on the face of the Soviets who touted the plane as a new wonder weapon comparable to anything in the west, they made the most of the situation by selling new engines, spare parts and technical services for hard currency which they needed desperately. 

On the positive side, It was the first Soviet fighter to field a look-down/shoot-down radar, and one of the first to be armed with beyond-visual-range guided missiles. 

Production started in 1969 and eventually topped 5,000 aircraft built, making it the most produced variable-sweep wing aircraft in history.

Today the MiG-23 remains in limited service with some less developed countries, though since the early ‘80s it has fared poorly in skirmishes with comparable western aircraft like American F-4s flown by the Israeli Air Force over Syria and Lebanon. 

Though the estimates may be politically motivated and therefore skewed, it’s claimed that in actual combat MiG-23s were usually on the losing side of kill ratios that often were as lopsided as 10 to 1. 

Now they’re usually left hangers or pressed into service in ground attack roles when there’s little likelihood of them running into newer fighters. 

4. Douglas DC-10

Despite its often fatal door problems that tended to make the headlines, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 had a lot going for it. 

The attractive jet sported three powerful turbofan engines, could transport nearly 280 passengers, had a maximum takeoff weight approaching 600,000 pounds (272,000 kg), and fully fueled could travel more than 3,500 miles (6,500 km) which made it a good choice for long-haul intercontinental flights.

Not surprisingly, when it was introduced in the mid-’70s orders poured in from all over the world, and when it was all said and done nearly 400 units were built. 

That said, in the annals of contemporary commercial aviation history, the DC-10 claims one of the worst safety records of all time, as evidenced by a 1974 Turkish Airlines crash that killed nearly 350 passengers and crew just after taking off from Paris, and a 1979 disaster that killed more than 270 in Chicago. 

And there were more – many more.

The DC-10’s main problem was that unlike its competitors, it was equipped with doors that opened outward instead of inward. 

Though it may seem like a trivial matter, inward opening doors had been standard equipment on airliners for decades, and for good reason – they were safe. 

On the downside, inward opening or “plug” doors ate up valuable space that could be used for passengers and cargo, and in an uber competitive industry like commercial aviation, pinching a few pennies on each flight could pay huge dividends in the long run. 

Originally, the DC-10’s design incorporated plug doors, but in response to a last minute request from one of its biggest customers – American Airlines – MD changed to a new outward opening door system that not only freed up interior space, but had the added advantage of shaving nearly 30 pounds (13.6 kg) of excess weight.

But unfortunately for those who’d fly on DC-10s, the new doors weren’t tested adequately under real world conditions, and they were ultimately responsible for a number of catastrophic crashes, or as they’re referred to in aviation lingo – “loss of hull” accidents. 

Though it’s believed that no FAA rules and regulations were actually broken during door testing, it highlighted a number of areas in which safety took a back seat to politics and convenience, and as a result hundreds of lives were lost.

In fact, many claimed that there existed between big manufacturers like McDonnell Douglas and regulators an all-too-cozy atmosphere, though it evaporated quickly when planes began falling from the sky and everyone began pointing accusatory fingers at everyone else.  

This was certainly the case after an incident on June 12, 1972 in which a DC-10 enroute from Detroit, Michigan to Buffalo, New York lost a doory over Windsor, Ontario, Canada. 

Though the incident wasn’t fatal, it highlighted serious flaws in the aircraft years before the aforementioned fatal crashes, yet the FAA dropped the ball, purportedly after things were smoothed over on a phone call between the Agency’s top official and the president of McDonnell Douglas. 

All told, DC-10s were involved in more than 50 accidents and incidents and suffered 32 hull-loss accidents (crashes) that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,200 people. 

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