August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
The Rise and Fall of a Most American Dream
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.