The web was awash with stories today on an intriguing concept for a personal Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft being studied by NASA. Called the Puffin, the one-person VTOL would have twin rotors/propellers and be powered by small electric motors. Several web sites, including Scientific American, had stories providing details on the Puffin. Conceptual pictures show the Puffin taking off and landing on it’s tail, similar to the experimental Convair XFY Pogo that flew successfully way back in the 1950s. A NASA video shows how the Puffin would take off, transition to horizontal flight, and then back to vertical flight for landing. It appears that unlike tilt-wing or tilt-rotor aircraft such as the Bell-Boeing V-22, the Puffin rotors are fixed, and transitional flight is accomplished by deflection of aerodynamic tail surfaces under the influence of the rotor down-wash. Also unique is the fact that the pilot would be in the standing position for take off and landing, but in the prone position during horizontal flight. Not explained in any of the info I read about the Puffin is what would happen if you had a failure of one of the electric motors driving each rotor, resulting in a very dangerous asymmetrical thrust situation. In the twin-engine V-22, both rotors are can be powered by a single engine driving an interconnected shaft if one engine fails.
While the Puffin concept is intriguing, it is currently just some pretty computer-generated pictures and video. Though it has a healthy pedigree with engineers from NASA, MIT and Georgia Tech behind it, I’m always somewhat skeptical of these ideas for radical flying machines, especially VTOL types. While I applaud any new aerospace concept based on sound engineering principles, the Puffin researchers will have to get a prototype or scale model flying to begin to win me over.