It is 1943. A group of young men relax under the wing of a bomber just returned from a mission over Germany. One of them is saying: “When we’ve taken care of Goering’s boys, I’m going back to West Virginia and get me a little farm. But I won’t be holed in like the old folks were. I’ll have my own plane …maybe one of those helicopter jobs they’re talking about that can go straight up and down and land in the back yard. Then I’ll be able to hop into town, or across the country, any time I want to.”
That is a fictional scene from a 1943 Aviation magazine ad. It represents a typical mid-World War II fantasy of “life after the war,” featuring the airplane—the dream machine of the future. And so it was in the midst of chaos and destruction that the vision of postwar commuting, vacationing and shopping by air picked up speed and took off.
The promise of an airplane in every garage was not entirely new. As early as 1936, aircraft designer Fred Weick had presented a paper to the Society of Aeronautical Engineers titled “Everyman’s Airplane: A Development Toward Simpler Flying.” His Ercoupe, which incorporated those developments, would later become a leading contender for that spot in everyman’s garage.
Simpler flying, from Weick’s perspective, meant interconnecting aileron and rudder controls so that rudder pedals could be removed. A twist of the pilot’s wheel produced an automatically coordinated, spinproof turn. Elevator movement was limited to make stalling virtually impossible. Even a nonflier in a panicky, wheel-to-the-chest approach would likely mush it in with little damage to plane or people.
In his autobiographical book From the Ground Up, Weick tells the story of a Mrs. Freed who found herself alone and aloft in the wrong seat of a single-control Ercoupe–her husband had gotten out to spin the prop to start the engine, and she had accidentally “floored” the throttle. She had no flying experience or radio, but she had reasonable intelligence plus a bit of adventure in her soul. She fiddled with the controls for a while. Then she brought it in (twice—she couldn’t stop it the first time) with not much more damage than a bent prop and a bitten lip.
It was that kind of an airplane, and students commonly soloed within three to four hours. The Ercoupe’s credentials as a general consumer product were certified when Macy’s Department Store in New York decided to market the airplane in 1945. The company set up a fifth-floor display and gave demonstration rides at a nearby airfield.
The Ercoupe was not alone in the imaginary skies full of flying families, however. As early as 1942, automaker Henry Ford, when asked what he would do with his airplane factory after the war, was said to have replied, “Make planes for everybody.” Many people believed that Ford’s success with the Model T automobile could be repeated with airplanes and thus provide a “flying flivver” for everyone that would eventually replace the roadbound automobile. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser jumped into the personal airplane business. House Beautiful magazine offered complete plans for airparks. House and Garden gave dimensions and costs for an airstrip on a person’s own five acres. Better Homes and Gardens suggested saving war bonds in an envelope labeled “tomorrow’s flying car.”
In keeping with the national mood, Cessna Aircraft Corporation of Wichita, Kan., set up its Family Car of the Air program, the “postwar airplane that you’ll be able to buy and fly if you can buy and drive an automobile.” Cessna’s advertisement in Aviation magazine included an illustration of a mother and daughter (in Sunday-best pillbox hat and hair bow) smiling down at the countryside from the cabin of their “Family Car of the Air,” which looked very much, in fact, like the interior of a 1941 Buick. The small print below invited potential customers to apply for “preferred listing for early postwar delivery.” Speculative orders poured in.
William T. Piper, founder and president of Piper Aircraft Corporation in Lock Haven, Pa., had been producing a lightplane called the Cub since the late 1930s. During the war, these became known as “grasshoppers” and “flying jeeps.” They were used to spot targets for artillery, evacuate wounded, carry blood plasma and messages, and deliver mail and supplies into jungle locations. Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Mark Clark flew them for inspection trips to the front lines. The Cub naturally became the front-runner in the flying flivver competition for the postwar aviation boom. Piper was also looking ahead with sleeker, plushier designs named the Skysedan and the Skycycle.
Most airplane manufacturers, by the end of the war, had at least one model they hoped would appeal to the millions of Americans made air-conscious by the just-concluded air war. Republic’s Seabee, North American’s Navion, Grumman’s Widgeon, Piper’s Cub Special, Cessna’s 140, Aeronca’s Champion—all of these and about 20 others were touted as “personal planes.” Everyone wanted a scene in the dream they thought was about to be enacted. American was about to enter what a New York Times editorial called an era of “air magic.”
Some people were aware of the limitations inherent in personal airplanes. For example, after you park an airplane at an airfield, how do you get to wherever you’re going? Any contemporary private pilot who relies on the existence of a courtesy car at the destination knows the problem still has not been solved.
Solutions were touted in newspapers and popular magazines in 1943. Many said, “Let’s just build different types of service facilities, and lots of them.” There would be airparks, each designed as a neighborhood country club complete with tennis courts, swimming pool, club house with restaurant, and a turf strip and adjacent hangars for aircraft operations. Around this core would be arranged a carefully planned neighborhood of attractive homes. All communities were being urged to incorporate into their city planning at least one airpark—several for larger cities.
There would also be “flightstops.” These would be landing strips adjacent to highways, with coin-operated telephones and automated fueling facilities for both cars and airplanes. Anyone with enough land adjacent to a highway would be encouraged to invest the small amount of money it would take to develop a flightstop and reap the profits. Oil companies were planning many such hybrid service stations. The expected result was that no one in an airplane would ever be farther than about 15 miles from a landing place anywhere in the country. William T. Piper claimed that the age of private aviation would never dawn unless communities across the country committed themselves to building inexpensive landing strips.
The real dreamers had no objections to airparks, but they had a much more exciting approach—the “roadable airplane.” Either fold up your wings alongside the fuselage, or drop them off at a specially designed facility, and drive away. Detroit engineer William B. Stout was the most prominent designer of flying cars at the time. His Aerocar, which was described in Scientific American and elsewhere, had detachable wings. It was designed to do 6070 mph on the highway and 100 mph in the air with about the same gasoline consumption.
But neither personal nor roadable airplanes had quite the out-of-this-world fascination of the helicopter. Now here was a flying machine one could take anywhere. Any flat surface the size of a large living room could be a landing field. A person could have his own backyard airport. A helicopter could land on the local grocery store roof or park in a car-sized space at work.
Igor Sikorsky, founder of Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, Conn., produced a film in 1942 that promoted the capabilities of his VS-300 helicopter, highlighting its possible rescue and military applications. At the end of the film, he included a sequence starring his test pilot, Les Morris, as a husband returning from work. The helicopter is parked in a line of automobiles at the grocery store, where Dad has picked up bread, milk and steak. He tips the parking attendant and lifts off for home.
When he lands at home, his wife is hanging laundry and the kids are playing in the yard. She retrieves the groceries from the carrier basket, but he’s forgotten the butter. Off he goes again, pausing by the apple tree to count the eggs in a bird’s nest. While Sikorsky warns that such idyllic scenes are many years away, the public mood in 1943 was to dream of the immediate postwar future in rosy, rather than reasonable, hues.
The film was shown to groups, including high school students, with a running lecture by Les Morris. Not surprisingly, when Life magazine published a big feature in June 1943 titled “Sikorsky’s Helicopter,” it reported that the Sikorsky company was busy returning checks to overeager would-be purchasers.
A few critics occasionally threw a sprinkling of cold water on postwar flying enthusiasm, but their cautionary words were largely ignored. Writer Wesley Price gave a much more realistic view of the airplane’s potential for everyday transport in a 1944 Saturday Evening Post article. He described a round trip between New York and New Orleans in his own lightplane. Fighting fatigue, and with many of their service stops complicated by bad weather, he and his passenger took nine days to complete the trip and spent nearly $500. They could have made the same flight by commercial airline in less than two days for a combined cost of approximately $300. But any fantasy worth a fling carries its own reality-proofing, and the need for cherished dreams often persists well beyond the cessation of all measurable vital signs. By the end of the war, those vital signs were already getting feeble.
What actually appeared in every garage was a car. A Gallup poll conducted in 1946 showed that the one thing everyone wanted most after the war was a new car, for which there already existed a system of roads. It is significant that a car ranked ahead of a house and even ahead of personal health and job security.
For the average consumer at the end of the war, the helicopter was still much too difficult to fly. The Civil Aeronautics Administration opposed the creation of those handy wayside flightstops. And, although Congress had passed a huge funding bill for development of air transport that included funding for airparks, actually building them was still the stuff of the future. For the time being, even if that little airplane was spinproof, where could you really go with it? Aunt Bessie would be upset if you landed in her cornand the nearest landing facility was miles away. And few of the dreamers had considered, even casually, the possibility of a traffic nightmare, with millions of private aircraft zipping around the sky.
Some light aircraft manufacturers maintained the illusion for about four years after the war. Demand exceeded their capacity to build, but the orders came from a relatively small percentage of the population who would have been interested in flying anyway. Most of those enthusiasts had been unable to buy a plane earlier and/or had been involved in military flying. By 1948, light airplane manufacturers were cutting production drastically, or going broke.
The dream of the personal airplane has never again reappeared with the intensity and wide appeal it had in the mid-1940s. Few garages have ever held a personal airplane or helicopter. After a brief resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of the roadable airplane again receded into near oblivion. General aviation, as civilian private flying eventually became known, has continued to grow, with approximately 200,000 lightplanes registered today. That may seem a lot, but it leaves plenty of room for the dream of a flying flivver in every yard.