An Airplane In Every Garage

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By the late twenties, however, planes and engines had become more dependable. As flight grew more common, the public began to abandon its fears along with the image of the pilot as an “intrepid birdman,” a person possessed of extraordinary courage, strength, dexterity, and not a little disdain for living. In the post-Lindbergh era all kinds of individuals were leaving the ground. A government official described expectations in 1930: “Everybody would fly, everybody would have a plane, and aerial traffic cops would soon be busy handing out tickets.” For years people had been awaiting what one newspaperman called “some Henry Ford of the aeronautical world” to bring the price of airplanes down “where almost anybody will be able to have his private air car.”

Sure enough, in the summer of 1926 Ford announced a prototype “flying flivver.” The plane proved to be a tiny single-seat machine, hardly the airborne equivalent of a family-toting Model T. Nonetheless, excited crowds turned out to see the little Ford during a reliability tour that brought it to Chicago and other cities. The press, too, treated the “air lizzie” exuberantly; it wrung a poem from one New York Evening Sun columnist:

I dreamed I was an angel And with the angels soared. But I was simply touring The heavens in a Ford.

 
 

The little Ford, alas, failed to live up to its lofty promise. In 1928, while flying over the beach in Miami, Ford’s friend Harry Brooks crashed and was killed in one. Ford temporarily suspended aircraft production, and two years later he withdrew from airplane manufacture altogether. If Americans were to tour the heavens, it would not be in Fords.

Despite the Depression in the 1930’s, the country continued to be air-minded. The aeronautical community was working to build what was termed a “foolproof” airplane, one that could safely be flown by anyone who could drive a car. And because airplane development did not yet demand immense sums of money or elaborate facilities, backyard experimenters and builders with small shops also avidly pursued the goal of mass flight.

One of these was Fred Weick, an engineer attached to the government’s aeronautical laboratories at Langley Field, Virginia. Working off-hours with some of his colleagues, Weick began in 1931 to evolve a plane that would not stall and go into a lethal tailspin; that would be landed safely on rough fields in windy conditions; and that had a simplified system of controls. On the eve of World War II, after years of development and prototype testing, Weick introduced the “Ercoupe,” a two-seat, all-metal aircraft that satisfied its inventor’s three criteria for safe, easy flight. Its spinproof design and tricycle landing gear were lasting contributions to flying safety and have become nearly universal. The simplified-control innovation, however, went too far in the direction of making flying as easy as driving a car.

Climbing into a conventional plane, one notices a control stick (or a steering wheel) and a pair of foot pedals. Push the stick forward and the plane descends; pull it back and the plane climbs; move it to one side and the plane banks or rolls; depress one of the foot pedals connected to the rudder and the plane’s nose moves left or right. This three-control system, standard since aviation’s earliest days, provides maximum control on three separate axes—what the pilot terms pitch, roll, and yaw.

In Weick’s simplified system, however, there were but two controls. The rudder pedals were gone. To turn the Ercoupe, the pilot simply turned his steering wheel, as in a car, and the plane automatically banked the proper amount as it turned. Neophytes loved it, but experienced pilots were less enthusiastic. Simplified controls clearly did not make flying foolproof, as Weick himself readily admitted, and despite any amount of prudence, the pilot of a two-control plane might get into trouble. If a gust of wind raised one wing tip while landing, the pilot could not level the plane without simultaneously turning it. Near the ground, that could be fatal. And it was impossible to lose altitude quickly by sideslipping. In sum, the pilot lacked total mastery over his plane, and the two-control innovation proved a passing fad.