Flying Submarine Documentary Is A Story Of Defied Assumptions

Donald Reid had a passion for applying himself to challenging problems, and in many ways his life’s work was that of developing a prototype submersible aircraft — or flying submarine — for which his son Bruce was a test pilot. [Jesse Moody] brought to our attention a fantastic documentary he created (with a short teaser trailer here) in which he interviews Bruce, and in the process teaches us all about a story that spanned decades and formed an important part of aviation history. Bruce experienced his share of hair-raising moments while testing the craft, but still has all of his fingers and limbs. Still, in his own words, “you wouldn’t be doing that kind of testing today!”

In many ways, the story revolves around defying assumptions. Without context, a “flying submarine” project might sound like a lone kook’s obsession, but Donald Reid was nothing of the sort. He was a brilliant engineer who was able solve problems by applying his skill and intellect with a laser-like focus. And it turns out that getting a submerged vehicle to successfully transition from waterbound craft to airborne is a source of numerous and novel problems that were not trivial to solve. In fact, these problems needed to be solved in order to develop the Tomahawk cruise missile, which is launched by submarine. And that brings us to the lawsuit that bookended it all.

Donald Reid had tried unsuccessfully to get the government interested in his work during the late 50s and 60s. He shared his data, but never got a call back despite clear evidence of work being done in the area. He felt that the later Tomahawk cruise missile — basically a flying mini-submarine — was a direct infringement of his patent. He did, after all, do the hard work of solving the many problems inherent in getting something to transition from underwater to airborne, and the Tomahawk was doing exactly that.

Donald Reid with an early small scale prototype, this one with a small pulsejet engine attached.

In the lawsuit, Donald represented himself legally. Again the situation defies assumption; without context one might imagine he was somewhere on the sovereign citizen spectrum, filing grievances in between conspiracy theories. In fact, he did so out of necessity — educating himself on law in the process — because no professional lawyer wanted the job of suing the US Government. He took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court as an individual, without the benefit of professional attorneys, which is a rare thing indeed.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against him, but it was on such a point that if he had had proper counsel, he very likely would have prevailed. The way patents work in the US can be troublesome for inventors. If an implementation deviates from a written patent in even one way, there is no infringement. For example, if one’s patent states that mechanical energy is stored in a spring and a competitor uses an elastic band instead, there is no infringement. For this reason, patents protect best when they describe an innovation as broadly (and briefly) as possible. In Donald Reid’s case, the government’s position was that there was no infringement because Reid’s work used supplemental buoyancy but the Tomahawk did not. But the patent as written covers selective (or optional) buoyancy, a point which Donald’s son Bruce feels could have been addressed had his father had proper representation. But one gets only a single shot when arguing before the Supreme Court, and that was that.

Before the patent lawsuit capped things off, the actual nuts & bolts development of the project had ended after some twelve years of R&D. It was always about proving the concept, and showing that it was possible for a vehicle to transition from submerged to airborne. Donald Reid always felt his work on the Reid RFS-1 was a success because he demonstrated it could be done, however limited the prototypes were in their capabilities. It’s a legit part of aviation history, and after years of neglect, one of the actual models is awaiting restoration.

In perhaps one last defiance of expectations, the story of the flying submarine isn’t just one of rumor and hazy recollection. Bruce was actually there, and a surprisingly good amount of photos and even video exist of the different models and their testing. You can see it all and learn the whole story in the documentary, embedded below.

39 thoughts on “Flying Submarine Documentary Is A Story Of Defied Assumptions

      1. I remember the Amazing Stories style sci-fi of yesteryear where they’d tell of a plucky engineer who took an old submarine hull and added a poorly-imagined “reactionless drive” and hey presto—instant starship! Good times.

  1. I remember, in school, iur physics teacher told us the fairytale about patents saving poor inventors. In practice, patents aren’t there to protect the intellectual property of the inventors. They warfare material. They’re there to keep the opposite party in court just long enough. Ideally, the opponent can’t use the idea for the time being. The outcome doesn’t matter in the end, even if the accused wins in court, the product/invention will likely be already outdated.

    1. The main benefit of patents is that you can go to investors and say “Hey, I have this thing, wanna buy in?” without the investors running back to their own engineering teams and beating you to the market with bigger money.

          1. I’ve worked for 2 companies existing on venture capital.
            They had great ideas (patents) but went under in a short time. Implementation? Unwilling to license? I don’t know, I was still too young to understand how business works.

          2. The case I saw was trying to do too much with too little – the idea was good but the business burned all their money on attempts at launching an early prototype as a product. The CEO was an “ideas guy” who overlooked or misunderstood technical details, tried to delegate everything to cheap contractors who didn’t understand the invention, and was surprised when the product didn’t work. Now it’s on round two, we’ll see how it goes this time.

        1. Point being, if it isn’t patented or at least patent pending, any of the larger competitors can pick it up and produce it before your startup company gets up on its feet. The investor would be better off investing in the established competitor instead of the inventor.

        2. I can confirm this is the case in petrochemical research industry. Our small startup aggressively obtained intellectual property protection (in our case provisional patents secured and a coupe of real patents in progress) before even considering shopping out tech to big (chevron, etc) companies. There would be zero way our company that was only just barely viable could go to court against them if somehow, even with NDAs and all that, we presented our tech then magically they independently discovered it 6mo later. But with IP in hand the threat of our small company taking a huge bite out of their bottomless pockets was the real value of our patent “protection”. So not never even was an issue.

          1. Consider the opposite: if there weren’t patents, inventors would have to do their stuff completely under the radar in secret, because they can’t tell anybody or even act suspiciously (google knows what you’re doing).

          2. @dude:
            Totally true! Trade secret is definitely a thing as well and has some benefits like doesn’t expire. But then you reallly have to be air tight with NDAs and also it helps to be a huge company that can both enforce it and doesn’t really need to sell the tech to someone else. Our company had basically a blanket NDA and then also patents and stuff. A hybrid if you will with both benefits and downsides to both approaches.

    2. Any regulatory system on a long enough timeline will be fully captured and subverted by early winners in the industry meant to be regulated, and the system will instead be twisted so that it functions to guarantee their success and utterly hobble their competition, especially new upstarts. There is no field in which this rule has not held, and regulatory efforts should be seen through this lens if you presume to think in the long term.

      1. It often happens that the originator of a technology ends up with nothing or only a small chunk of the market. Philo T. Farnsworth got little out of his television patent due to RCA and its deep pockets being able to nearly run the clock out before being forced to license the patent from him. He also wasn’t good at marketing, with his own brand of televisions not selling well. So RCA got the profits anyway, and convinced the public they’d actually invented it all along. I did notice some time back in an ad for some anniversary of RCA they emphasized the company’s invention of *color* television. Likely didn’t want to get bombarded with complaints that RCA didn’t invent television.

        Having been invented here, the USA got stuck with the first, and worst, version of analog electronic television for a long time, while in other countries people were able to enhance it with higher resolution, color correction built into the transmission system, and better sound. That all eventually came to NTSC, but slowly, via various hacks and addons.

    1. Thanks Dale! There was A LOT to go through and this took me about 6 years to finish (working off and on between internships and other life stuff). I have even more video/photos that I couldn’t use due to time. Maybe some day I’ll release it along with other handheld videos I took of Bruce describing and holding various surviving parts of the sub.

    2. One of those annoying bits of grammar that they made up post-commonwealth just to make the language more difficult to speak so they could dunk on the unwashed colonials and show who was truly English.

    1. The thing with any tool is it is usually multi-purpose if you have the ingenuity and need…

      And some multi tool are better than most dedicated tools for the same job – though likely more expensive by a substantial amount. For instance Leathmen make some really really damn good pliers, that are generally also rather good or better at being a knife/screwdriver(etc). In that case for most of the jobs it is supposed to do it is just about as good when compared even to the better end of dedicated tools, it just costs a alot. Quite a few good Handtools happen to be multitool.

      That said unless you are some SHADO operation that needs a flying submarine…
      It is not a combination that makes any logical sense for the most part – it is not the sort of thing where the engineering requirements and job requirements of all the ‘tools’ share much overlap, they are actually more approaching mutually exclusive.

  2. One thing I really liked learning was that before working on the flying sub idea, he was successfully selling radio-controlled submarines that he designed himself and was manufacturing himself using equipment (for e.g. thermoforming, injection molding) that he made on his own.

    Inspiring, yes, but it also shows something else: how all his life he was limited by the need to bootstrap literally everything due to lack of funds. Makes one wonder what he could have accomplished with some extra funding, or at least access to better resources.

  3. This reminds me of watching Star Trek: Voyager and there’s an episode or two where they take the ship right down from deep, interplanetary space through an atmosphere and then dive absurdly deep into an ocean on a planet more massive than Earth, all with the same hull and propulsion systems of course. I love that show but some scenes must be meant to give engineers in the audience an instant headache.

    1. In fututama, Fry asks if the spaceship could dive underwater. Prof says since it’s a starship it can handle any pressure between zero and one.
      Something like that.

    2. If you want a real groaner, watch “Airport 77” where a hijacked 747 clips an oil rig with a wing then plunges into 100 feet of water, without breaking apart, then settles onto the bottom, without water rushing in through the cabin pressurization ducts from the compressor stages of the engines or through the air outflow vents. Completely technically absurd yet grossed $90 million worldwide in 1977. It was so successful that when broadcast on television it was an extended cut rather than the typical cut down edit most movies got for TV.

  4. It’s a fascinating story. At first, the idea of a flying submarine seems absurd. But then, you realize that there are flying fish, and there are birds that can fly and also dive and swim underwater; so it is clearly possible. For them, the “mission” is to evade predators or catch prey; so Nature found a way.

    Donald Reid certainly had the imagination and determination to make a flying sub. What he lacked was the money, and the mission.

    There are many things that “can’t be done”, until someone does it.

    1. Flying fish have a tough life. Underwater they’re vulnerable to sea mammals and larger fish. So they leap out of the waves to escape those predators, only to find as they’re gliding along that hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey are eager to snatch them out of the air.

  5. Reading the patent it doesn’t really look like he had a strong case. Bearing in mind I have no knowledge of US patent law, the patent makes pretty specific and detailed claims about supplemental buoyancy, where it is located, and how it is used that make up the bulk of 4 of the five claims of the patent. None of would seem to apply to the way the Tomahawk works. Knock that out and all you are really left with is claim 3, a flying submarine with folded airfoils underwater and extended for flight.

    1. You forgot to mention the proceeding word to ‘supplemental bouyancy’, – SELECTIVE, meaning you can use it or NOT. If it is not used, what would be the difference between the FS & the T-hawk?

      1. It sounds like there is a link, but I’m pretty sure the method used still has no linkage.
        AFAIK (and I only vaguely remember) the thing just launches itself into the air (was it with compressed air?) and then the rocket motor ignites. Not something this thing could have ever hope to do.
        But maybe I’m wrong?
        A propelor (for the flying part) is just too slow in acceleration to use similar methods. Plus the human body has higher limits on acceleration.
        Also those missiles are a one-way thing, there is no expectations to return to the sub (one would hope :).

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