- Historic Sites
An Airplane In Every Garage
The Rise and Fall of a Most American Dream
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Notwithstanding individuals like Weick, it was the federal 1 ^i government in the thirties that made the most sustained and the best publicized efforts on behalf of wings for the masses. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s programs made provision for aspiring flyers. Behind the New Deal for aviation was Eugene L. Vidal, the father of the contemporary author Gore Vidal. For four years this husky former Olympic athlete, military pilot, and airline executive directed the Bureau of Air Commerce, the agency then empowered to regulate and promote aviation. In November, 1933, shortly after his appointment, Vidal announced that the government would spend half a million dollars to produce a “poor man’s airplane.” It would sell for seven hundred dollars, Vidal said, about the cost of a medium-priced automobile. The plane would be a two- or three-seater that could be manufactured by “conveyer belt” and inexpensively maintained. In order to “look right” to a public familiar with shiny silver airliners and chrome-trimmed automobiles, it would be made of metal. A market definitely existed for such a craft, Vidal believed, not only among car drivers but also in the flying community. He had queried some thirty-four thousand licensed pilots, student fliers, and mechanics as to their interest in a seven-hundred-dollar plane and found the response favorable.
Vidal planned to launch the lane with a grant from Harold Ickes’ Public Works Administration. Federal funds, channeled perhaps through a consortium of existing airplane builders, would hire unemployed engineers, draftsmen, and craftsmen to design and manufacture the federal flivvers. Before a man was hired or a blueprint drawn, however, politics grounded the scheme. PWA lawyers insisted money could go only to public works, and that there was nothing at all public about private planes. Some members of the administration objected to rewarding the aircraft industry at a time when it was under suspicion for antitrust violations. For its own part, the industry was skeptical. Building a simple, fabric-covered plane for under one thousand dollars was difficult enough, so Vidal’s proposed seven-hundred-dollar price tag for an all-metal one seemed absurd. The alloy alone would cost three hundred and sixty dollars.
Not to be thwarted, Vidal devised an alternative approach. Having authority to purchase aircraft for use by bureau pilots, he set about encouraging industry to produce what he called a “safety plane.” He drew up his criteria and solicited bids, planning to purchase twenty-five safety planes from the firm submitting the best design. Cost would not be a major factor in the competition, although Vidal hoped that the bureau’s adoption of the design would generate a broader demand for the plane and eventually lower its price. He opened the final bids at a small ceremony in Washington on August 27, 1934. Only one came from an aircraft manufacturer of any size and reputation; another was from a crank, crudely penned on hotel stationery. All the rest had been submitted by small firms or backyard inventors. Vidal decided against ordering all twenty-five from any one bidder, and instead awarded contracts to five different parties, each for a single prototype, which the government would test and evaluate.
As these subsidized aircraft rolled out of the workshops in 1935 and 1936, they attracted considerable publicity. Two of the prototypes, the Waterman “Arrowplane” and the Hammond, impressed observers as safe and easy to fly. Both had the tricycle landing gear introduced by Fred Weick and both were resistant to tailspins. In August, 1935, Fred Geisse, Vidal’s chief of development and an amateur pilot, flew the Waterman from its factory in San Diego to Washington, D. C., where he told reporters that the plane was “very close” to being foolproof. Some journalists who flew it went much further. The Waterman gave “soul-satisfying evidence” that the sky would soon be “a general traffic highway for private and family airplanes,” reported the New York World Telegram , concluding that “the idea of a cheap, safe automobile of the air seems at last out of the dream stage.” If the Waterman’s engine quit on takeoff, the Associated Press pointed out, instead of falling into a spin and crashing, it would “land itself safely … no matter how rattled the pilot may become. ” Amelia Earhart took a short hop in the plane and said it handled nicely. Similar responses greeted the Hammond. One man, untutored in piloting, took off in the ship, flew several times around the field, and made a number of perfect landings. The Hammond, he concluded, was “far easier to take off, fly and land than an automobile was to drive!”
Despite these encomiums both the Hammond and the Waterman had their limitations. They may have been easy to fly but they proved slow and not very responsive to their controls. Much of the problem lay with Vidal’s safety-plane specifications, which had stipulated such great visibility that the designers were forced to install rear engines to increase the size of the windshield. But the rear-engine design, with the propeller pushing the plane through the air rather than pulling it, proved inefficient. Undaunted, Waldo Waterman actually envisioned making his plane “roadable.” Were its single high-mounted wing (it had no tail) removable, and a clutch and transmission fitted, the plane could in effect become a car. A few years after delivering the original Waterman Arrowplane, Waterman built a roadable prototype.