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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Local inventor’s ‘flying flapjack’ was an aircraft ahead of its time

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: July 6, 2024, 6:05am

A decade before Roswell’s stories of flying saucers and little green men in New Mexico captured the mind of the nation, Pearson Field saw its own unidentified flying object. Marvin Joy, a bridge tender on the railroad crossing the Columbia River Slough, appeared at the Vancouver airfield with a strange UFO-like aircraft. Joy called it his “pumpkin seed,” albeit a huge one. Its front end rose 10 feet above the ground, and it was supported by two bulky tires. Located above the wheels were two propellers driven by Salmson engines that together produced 45 horsepower. To control the craft in flight, the pilot used rudders located behind the engines rather than traditional wings and ailerons.

In September 1937, when Joy’s prototype made its public appearance at Pearson Field, some fliers gawked and rolled their eyes. Their mouths dropped open in a mix of surprise and suspicion. What they saw looked more like a gigantic halibut than an aircraft. Others, more open-minded, were curious about the plane’s capability. In the beginning, Joy’s oddly shape aircraft did little more than taxi about the runway. However, flight tests followed. But an eventful flight would change Joy’s pumpkin seed of a plane into a “flying flapjack.”

Danny Grecco piloted the wingless bird, perhaps making the first wingless flight ever. Lowell Moore, an unlicensed pilot who hung about the field learning to become a mechanic, observed the slow initial flight. Grecco took Joy’s aircraft for a leisurely test spin around Pearson Field and landed without incident. Unsatisfied with such dawdling success, Joy returned to his workshop to fine-tune his strange craft.

When he returned, professional pilot Sid Monastes attempted the second wingless flight. After taking off successfully, he suddenly lost altitude, and snagged the tail on barbed wire at the eastern end of the runway. The plane performed a perfect 360-degree somersault. The pumpkin seed landed on its fat tires with a whump, with shiny barbed wire snarled around its tail like ribbon wrapped around a gift. Monastes was shaken but uninjured. It’s likely this flip motivated Oregonian reporter and pilot Leverett Richards to rename Joy’s experimental craft “the flying flapjack.”

Joy’s prototype wasn’t flown again. Simply said, it passed quietly into aviation oblivion. The idea of a wingless plane disappeared for decades, until NASA’s M2-F1, the first successful wingless aircraft, took to the skies in 1963. Between 1963 and 1965, NASA’s Flight Research Center (now Armstrong Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., tested a fleet of lifting bodies, showing that pilots could steer and land wingless aircraft — something that Joy had proved at Pearson Field in the 1930s, despite no formal training in aeronautics.

Joy was an intuitive “do-it-yourselfer” who read every book and article he could find about flying. Once he had a thorough knowledge of the fundamental concepts of aviation physics, he was able to instinctively design a wingless aircraft. J.B. Dobson, a colonel in the Air National Guard and a manager at Pendleton Woolen Mills, funded Joy’s wingless experiment.

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Columbian freelance contributor