An Airplane In Every Garage

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By then Vidal already had some experience with such a vehicle. In August, 1936, a test pilot named John Ray landed an odd-looking craft in a small park near the bureau’s downtown Washington offices. The large lunch-hour crowd that assembled saw a wingless, lozenge-shaped machine with a gigantic overhead rotor and a propeller on its nose. It was an autogyro, a precursor of the helicopter. Although it could not rise straight up and down or hover motionless, it required a fraction of a conventional airplane’s takeoff and landing space. What lifted the machine onto the front pages of newspapers, however, was that it was half automobile. It could be driven on the road as well as flown through the air. Its pilot-driver could transfer power from his propeller and rotor to his single rear drive wheel just by throwing a clutch.

 

Ray climbed out of the aircraft’s diminutive cabin, folded the overhead rotor blades back along the craft’s black and orange fuselage, returned to his cockpit, and drove the autogyro around to the front of the Commerce Department building on Pennsylvania Avenue. There Vidal shook his hand and accepted the machine on behalf of the government. Ray then motored off through the midday traffic to the Mall where he unfolded the overhead rotor and took off for nearby Boiling Field. A little later he provided an unplanned encore to an already impressive performance. Cruising over the capital area, Ray saw the oil pressure suddenly drop. He scanned the ground for a lightly traveled road; spotting one, he rotored down, landed, and drove off to find a gas station. There he discovered he was simply low on oil. He topped off his supply and once again took to the air, completing his trip without further incident.

Surely such a combination flying-driving vehicle fulfilled O the dream of wings for everyman. But in fact neither Vidal’s autogyro nor any of the subsequent air-road vehicles, including Waldo Waterman’s “Arrowbile,” found a market, let alone triggered the expected travel revolution. The trouble was that the air-road hybrids got along fairly well in two very different environments but were outperformed by specialized vehicles in each. The weight of clutches, transmissions, brakes, lights, and other highway equipment inevitably compromised their flying performance, while on the ground their light bodies rendered them vulnerable and their wheels, built small to cut down on weight and air resistance aloft, limited driving speeds. A Ford sedan could idle along at fifty miles per hour, but Vidal’s autogyro cruised at only twenty-five. And the Ford’s interior was a virtual living room compared with the autogyro’s cramped cabin.

With the autogyro’s delivery, Vidal’s safety-plane program came to an ambiguous end. Vidal himself continued to believe in it, although, harried by four years of criticism of his “all-mental” programs, he resigned from government in 1937 to experiment with molded-wood techniques for small-plane production. Although the poor man’s plane would continue to elude him, Vidal maintained his association with aviation, as a corporate director and consultant, until his death in 1969.

Neither the federal government nor the country’s most successful automobile maker had managed to put an airplane in every garage, yet Americans still clung to the dream. During the war years, in fact, personal flying machines were discussed as if their appearance were imminent. The question “What and when will Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public be flying after the war” generated national debate, and a good many people found the answer in the recently perfected helicopter. A film produced by the Sikorsky Helicopter Company and shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s popular “Airways for Peace” exhibition of 1943, suggested that its viewers soon would be hopping off from city roofs in this new “Poor Man’s Pegasus.” One wartime poll indicated that as many as 85 per cent of Air Force pilots planned to own planes in peacetime. Of the readers surveyed by Women’s Home Companion , 39 per cent planned to take flying lessons; the postwar sky would be egalitarian. According to yet another study, 43.5 per cent of professional and business people expected to own a plane. And if one believed a comprehensive study made by the Saturday Evening Post in 1945, between three and fifteen million personal planes would be buzzing overhead after the war. Although a Civil Aeronautics Administration report published the same year as the Post study was less sanguine, predicting that by the end of the first peacetime decade the number of personal planes would be anywhere from four hundred thousand to two million, it is no wonder that one out of every three new car dealers was reported planning to sell airplanes in the dawning air age.