An Airplane In Every Garage

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A little late for Christmas, the February, 1951, issue of Popular Mechanics featured an ideal gift for mechanically minded, travel-loving Americans: a two-seat, jet-powered helicopter. The cover of the magazine offered a glimpse into our aerial future—a man in hat and overcoat pushing a sleek little yellow helicopter into the garage of his suburban home. A red one hovered over his neighbor’s house. In only two hours, the magazine reported, virtually anybody could learn to fly these machines. According to Stanley Hiller, their inventor, the helicopters were virtually foolproof; unless you “deliberately” flew into a building or a power line, it would be hard to hurt yourself. In an emergency the pilot could always “slow down to a halt in the air and think things over.” But the best news was that the little copters were already “in production.” Because of the war in Korea, Hiller’s entire output was going to the military, but civilian deliveries would begin “just as soon as circumstances permit.”

Our helicopter coupés never arrived, of course, and today the very idea of family flying machines seems chimerical and terrifying. In 1951, however, and for nearly half a century before that, Americans were blind to the threat of aerial congestion. Millions expected the airplane—and later the helicopter—to become tomorrow’s means of family transportation. The flying machine, it was felt, would evolve into a personally owned and operated conveyance just like the automobile. As early as 1897 a writer spoke of the as yet uninvented airplane as the “horseless carriage of the next generation.” Subsequently, articles such as “Shall We All Fly Soon?” “An Airplane in Every Garage?” “Coming—The Helicopter Land Boom,” and “Air Flivvers and the Future,” implanted the air-car dream solidly in the popular imagination. The airplane would “create the countryside,” just as the automobile had created the suburb. At day’s end weary workers would rise “like homing birds” and fly away from the hot and bustling city toward their rural nests where “the trout stream bubbles” and “the birds twitter each other to sleep.” Aircraft would become our means of going shopping, making social calls, and taking vacations. Rather than once-a-year outings to a favorite lakeside or mountain retreat, the “family car of the air” would facilitate “vacations every weekend” and “magic trips to everywhere.”

So ran the rhetoric of a wonderful mechanical fantasy. The dream, however, was never only a fantasy. Architects designed air-age houses with planeports in lieu of garages; towns constructed airparks or small airports and offered high school flight instruction in anticipation of the day when all of us would fly; and the federal government planned a “poor man’s airplane. ” But the first and most crucial step on the road to wings for all took place December 17,1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. At first few knew of the Wrights’ success, but as people came to see that flight was possible, they readily concluded that wings would soon be commonplace. The transportation revolution that in their own lifetimes had seen trolleys supplant horsecars and automobiles supplant bicycles would now reach its ultimate stage with the adoption of flying machines. It was easy to agree with experts like Alexander Graham Bell, who in 1909 predicted that the “aerial motor car” lay just around the corner.

In 1913 Alfred W. Lawson and Harold F. McCormick became the country’s first aerial commuters. Lawson had been a professional baseball player, a novelist, and a businessman before 1907, when, as he later told it, God called him to take up the cause of flight and to spread the gospel of aviation. He thereupon founded two aeronautical magazines, learned to fly, and bought what was then called a flying boat. In this fragile, open-cockpit seaplane he commuted between his home at Seidler’s Beach, New Jersey, on Raritan Bay and his office near the New York City waterfront. A thousand miles to the west, Harold F. McCormick purchased not one but two flying boats and erected substantial hangars for them on the shore by his Evanston, Illinois, residence. He engaged a professional pilot as his aerial chauffeur and personal flying instructor. First as a passenger and then as pilot, McCormick reduced the twenty-five-mile trip from home to office to a matter of minutes. He berthed his “air yacht,” as such seagoing aircraft were sometimes called, at the nearby Chicago Yacht Club.

“Yacht” aptly described McCormick’s seven-thousand-dollar vehicle with its mahogany-paneled cockpit. The son of the inventor of the threshing machine and founder of the International Harvester Company, young McCormick could well afford it; but at a time when an automobile cost $500—more than the average laborer brought home in a year—most Americans could not afford a car, let alone an airplane. Cost, of course, was only one problem: the machines were impractical for door-to-door travel; they were difficult to fly; and they were dangerous.