Shangdeng No.1 — Helicopter, Bus, or Boat?

The only known photo of the Shangdeng No.1 wooden scale mockup. (中国飞机全书 Vol. 3)

Please note that this article is indeed my original work but was ported over from Plane Encyclopedia, a site which I formerly wrote for and where this article was first published.

The Shangdeng No.1 was an overambitious design undertaken by the Chinese Shanghai Bulb Factory in 1958 to produce a multipurpose vehicle which could serve as a helicopter, a bus and a boat for the National Day celebrations. Vastly unknown both inside and outside of China, the Shangdeng No.1 can be considered one of the People’s Republic of China’s more obscure designs of the 1950s. Quietly canceled after the conclusion of National Day, the Shanghai Bulb Factory would never fulfill their promise of completing the design and preparing it for mass production. This could be attributed to a plethora of reasons, but information is scarce.

On October 1st 1958, the People’s Republic of China celebrated the ninth anniversary of the founding of the nation. As their personal way of celebrating this national holiday, representatives of the Shanghai Bulb Factory unveiled a model of a hybrid design as a gift to the government. Unorthodox and, some may rightfully argue, ridiculous in concept, this design (dubbed the “Shangdeng No.1” / “上灯” 1 号) was meant to have served as a versatile multipurpose vehicle capable of acting as a helicopter, a boat and a small bus. Upon presenting this model to the government, they proclaimed that design and manufacturing work would be completed in 1959 thus allowing for mass production. However, this would never happen, as work on the project ceased shortly after the model was presented and the conclusion of National Day.

The reason for the cancellation is unknown, but one could speculate a number of reasons. First and foremost, the Shanghai Bulb Factory specialized in the production of lightbulbs, therefore they completely lacked any expertise, experience, qualified personnel and machinery required to design and in turn produce such a conceptually complicated vehicle. A second possible reason why the project was canceled was due to Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” campaign, which would have the entire country struggle to industrialize and collectivize. The Shangdeng No.1 could have been deemed as useless and thus canceled by the government so that the factory could focus its resources to fulfill government mandated quotas of lightbulb production. Lastly, the Shanghai Bulb Factory could have had no intention of developing the Shangdeng No.1 in the first place, and the model presented could have been just a demonstration to show off Chinese ingenuity and to boost the morale of the Chinese people in a small show of fanciful propaganda. These, however, are just theories to speculate on why the Shangdeng No.1 was canceled. Only one photo is known to exist of the Shangdeng No.1’s scale model presented during National Day.

In conclusion, the Shangdeng No.1 was an overambitious design concept explored by the Shanghai Bulb Factory which resulted in the presentation of a scale model on the ninth National Day of the People’s Republic of China. Absurd in concept, the Shanghai Bulb Factory would have had no possible way of delivering on their promise to produce such a vehicle as they certainly had little to no experience on vehicle design and machinery intended for light bulb production could only produce so little. The fact that a light bulb factory conceptualized this vehicle is quite interesting though, and, to their credit, an intended helicopter/bus/boat hybrid design would most certainly have raised a few eyebrows in the country and in the Western world, assuming that the design was feasible and successful.

As details on this project are so scarce, it has led to some debate on the legacy of the design. A popular claim by numerous online sources is that, after the project was canceled, documents on the Shangdeng No.1 was transferred to the American Boeing firm, and that the Shangdeng’s tandem rotor design served as the inspiration of the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter. This claim is unrealistic and vacuous, as the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America had no formal relations until the late 1960s / early 1970s, nearly a decade after the Chinook was serviced. Therefore, the concept of a Chinese light bulb factory transferring documents to and influencing a world-renowned aviation corporation would be extremely illogical and, frankly, impossible. The United States of America was also no stranger to tandem bladed helicopters designs, as numerous helicopters (eg. Piasecki HRP Rescuer, Piasecki H-21, etc) formerly and currently in service had these designs prior to the conceptualization of the Shangdeng.

The design of the Shangdeng No.1 resembles a rectangular box with rounded edges. A tandem rotor blade configuration was used, and the conceptual power plant of the Shangdeng would have been an unspecified radial engine model capable of producing up to 450 hp, connected to both the front and the rear rotors. The cockpit located at the front of the helicopter would have allowed space for two pilots. Four passengers (or the weight equivalent in cargo) could have been held in the compartment located behind the cockpit. Windows were planned to be installed in the fuselage as can seen in the scale model. Relatively speaking, the Shangdeng’s dimensions are quiet small for a tandem rotor helicopter design. The Shangdeng was only 6 ft 7 in (2.00 m) tall, which would have likely made the interior compartment quite cramped.

Four static wheels were mounted in pairs in the front and rear part of the fuselage which would have moved the Shangdeng in its bus configuration. It is unknown whether or not the design would have allowed the tandem helicopter rotors to be folded in this configuration. If not, the blades could potentially be damaged in urban areas or crowded spaces. It is unknown if a separate transmission would have been connected to the wheels, but this would have certainly greatly complicated the design. If the vehicle in its bus configuration was meant to be propelled by the rotors, that would have been not only unacceptably inefficient, but would have also limited the paths it could travel and would have been highly dangerous to be next to. Steering in the wheeled mode is also unclear.

In its naval configuration, the Shangdeng would have been propelled by an unspecified amount of 15 in / 40 cm propellers in the rear, possibly with assistance from the wheels which would have provided limited propulsion in the water. Again, this would have probably been highly fuel-inefficient. Also, why would a helicopter, which can easily get between any two points by flying, be used as a boat is hard to fathom. How steering was achieved in the boat mode is unclear.

In the helicopter configuration, the Shangdeng would have just been propulsed by the rotor blades and radial engine. The problem of having someone trained both as a pilot, driver and skipper at the same time seems to have gone unnoticed by the designers. As the project did not progress beyond the conceptual model stage, intricate details regarding the Shangdeng No.1 are unknown. However, basic dimensions and estimated performances are provided by 中国飞机全书: Volume III, a book written by People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) general Wei Gang (魏钢), former PLAAF model maker and artist Chen Yingming (陈应明) and aviation magazine author Zhang Wei (张维).

A wonderful artistic depiction of the Shangdeng No.1 drawn by my friend Edward Jackson. Check out more of his work at Gunjigraphics.com
Shanghai Bulb Factory Shangdeng No.1
Length32 ft 10 in / 10.00 m
Height6 ft 7 in / 2.00 m
Engine1x Unspecified Multi-Cylinder Radial Engine Model (450 hp)
Rotor Blade Length26 ft 3 in / 8.00 m
Rotor Blade Spacing22 ft / 7.00 m
Boat Propeller Length15 in / 40 cm
Wheel Diameter27.5 in / 70 cm
Maximum Takeoff Weight4000 lbs / 1,800 kg
Climb Rate6.6 ft / 2 m per second
Maximum Speed (Flying)95 mph / 150 km/h
Maximum Speed (Driving)60 mph / 100 km/h
Maximum Speed (Sailing)7 mph / 12 km/h
Range400 mi / 650 km
Maximum Service Ceiling9,800 ft / 3,000 m
Crew2x Pilot and 4x Passengers
Bibliography
Gang, W., Ming, C. Y., & Wei, Z. (2011). 中国飞机全书 (Vol. 3). Beijing: 航空工业出版社
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1 thought on “Shangdeng No.1 — Helicopter, Bus, or Boat?”

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