An Airplane In Every Garage

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As VJ Day arrived, the long-standing vision of wings for everyman finally appeared to be coming true. In 1946 alone Americans purchased 33,254 personal planes, five times more than in any previous year. Backlogged orders ran into the millions of dollars. Thousands of veterans, flush from newly legislated GI benefits, joined civilians in taking flying lessons, and an increasing number of high school students signed up for similar instruction in their schools. Many communities broke ground for airparks, and if automobile dealers did not move en masse into airplane sales, Macy’s of New York did add the all-metal, two-seat Ercoupe to its inventory. As they stopped on the fifth floor, Macy’s elevator operators chimed out quite matter-of-factly, “ladies girdles, gentlemen’s socks, airplanes, and household appliances.”

But the postwar flying boom proved short-lived. Airfields closed, pilots allowed their licenses to lapse, and many investors lost money, among them the builders of the “Skycar,” “Airphibian,” “ConvAircar,” and “Aerocar,” air-road hybrids that flitted briefly across the postwar sky. Prophecies of helicopter coupés also proved premature, for the helicopter remained a noisy, inefficient, and relatively unsafe way to leave the ground. From a high of over thirty thousand units in 1946, aircraft sales fell off by half in 1947 and by half again in 1948. Never again have they come close to the 1946 levels. The downturn was not a recession. The girdles, gentlemen’s socks, and household appliances all sold vigorously. But not family planes. Even today the total fleet of personal aircraft stands at less than one hundred thousand, about two-thirds the number of cars on the road in 1907, the year before Ford introduced his Model T.

By 1950 the vision of personal wings, of country living combined with easy flights to city downtowns, was all but moribund in popular culture.

Had it ever been possible? Not for the vast majority of Americans. But in Alaska, Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming—states with few residents and great distances—many individuals do own a plane and fly to work, to shop, or to visit friends. And even in our metropolitan areas, the idea of using aircraft like automobiles has occasionally worked. It worked for Harold McCormick and Alfred Lawson almost seventy years ago, and it works today for the inhabitants of Casa de Aero, Illinois, one of a handful of airplane-oriented communities in the United States. Casa de Aero sits on the flat prairie some forty miles from downtown Chicago. The breadwinners of its thirty-two families are mostly professional airline pilots who work out of O’Hare International Airport. A couple of times a week these affluent professionals walk out of their large modern homes into attached garages and climb not into a car but into a family plane. They then taxi out onto Casa de Aero’s private airstrip and take off. Within minutes they arrive over O’Hare where they land, park their planes, and report for work. After piloting a jet to Los Angeles or London or Mexico and back, the men once again hop into their aerial flivvers and fly home.

 

But despite these exceptions, the dream of an airplane in every garage was at heart an escapist fantasy. While most modern Americans have by necessity become urbanités, they have continued to yearn for a less congested, more tranquil, rural existence. First the streetcar and then the automobile made this possible. The airplane seemed to promise an even more conclusive break with the city, a literal flight to some far-off place where “the trout stream bubbles” and “the birds twitter each other to sleep.” The goal, however, was far beyond the capacity of any flying machine.

Yet some believers are still tinkering. Recently the Rotor Way Aircraft Company of Tempe, Arizona, suggested that “if fifty-five M. P. H. has finally got you down, then start looking up.” Look up, that is, toward a Scorpion helicopter. “Instead of fighting traffic in a four-wheeled box,” the ad continued, “you could be commuting point to point in your personal helicopter.” Ten dollars brought the reader a “full-color evaluation package”; the price of the Scorpion itself was not mentioned. And out in Longview, Washington, Moulton B. Taylor, developer of an air-road hybrid that on the highway pulls its folded wings and tail section as a self-contained trailer, boasted in 1978: “My flying auto is way ahead of its time.”

Maybe, but history suggests otherwise.