Saturday, January 5, 2013

You want flying cars? I'll give you flying cars

As mentioned before, I'm a fan of David Graeber's recent essay, "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit" but I really dislike the title.  Flying cars have become the go-to cliche when discussing underperforming technological progress. On top of that, they have a slightly goofy quality and often come with the at least the implication that no one serious ever actually believed this stuff.

The last part is especially unfortunate because for most of the Twentieth Century, personal aviation was seen as something very close that was going to be very big. Exactly which technology (flying cars, personal planes, and, in the post-war era, jet-packs) would come to dominate was an open question, but serious people believed that flying would become very much like driving for things like commuting and they were willing to back up that belief with money and research.

I n 1933 the U. S. government spent half a million dollars to produce a ‘poor man’s airplane through the efforts of Eugene Vidal, promising a 2-3 seat, all metal aircraft costing $700 (the approximate price of a nice car and considerably less than any aircraft). While this effort was not embraced by the aircraft manufacturers of the time and portrayed as “an all mental aircraft”, the idea was enthusiastically greeted by the public. A direct result of this research was the Erco Ercoupe, which achieved new levels of ease of use, along with a spin-proof, safe stalling, smallfield capable, inexpensive aircraft. T.P. Wright, the Administrator of Civil Aeronautics, wrote an extensive review of NACA small aircraft efforts to “meet the needs of the family”. “When the market for all other types of planes is grouped it is apparent that what may be termed a really large industry, and one having an important effect on national economy, will not be provided. Of course the market for military aircraft will for a long time represent possibly the most important field in aircraft development and manufacture. However, even considering this with the others it can readily be seen that, developed to an adequate extent, the personal aircraft can easily become the most important factor in the aircraft industry. Used both for business and pleasure it is here only that an almost limitless potential market is available.”
Vidal was so committed that he even used his young son to demonstrate (at least briefly) how safe and easy flying these aircraft could be.

Gore Vidal, born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. on Oct. 3, 1925, in West Point, N.Y., was the only child of First Lieutenant Eugene Luther Vidal and Nina Gore, a socialite. His father was the first aeronautics instructor of the U.S. Military Academy and later the director of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Air Commerce during the Roosevelt Administration. Vidal's father had so much faith in the Hammond flivver-type plane that he sent 10-year-old Gore aloft to fly it. Vidal is pictured at the controls before takeoff. 
The flying car starts looking a bit less goofy in this context. Personal aircraft were soon supposed to be common. Neighborhoods would have their own airstrips. The idea of an airplane that was easily transportable and could double as a family automobile had obvious appeal.

By the Forties, these ideas had even reached the prototype stage

Taylor's design of a roadable aircraft dates back to 1946 [first flight 1949]. During a trip to Delaware, he met inventor Robert E. Fulton, Jr., who had designed an earlier roadable airplane, the Airphibian. Taylor recognized that the detachable wings of Fulton’s design would be better replaced by folding wings. His prototype Aerocar utilized folding wings that allowed the road vehicle to be converted into flight mode in five minutes by one person. When the rear license plate was flipped up, the operator could connect the propeller shaft and attach a pusher propeller. The same engine drives the front wheels through a three-speed manual transmission. When operated as an aircraft, the road transmission is simply left in neutral (though backing up during taxiing is possible by using reverse gear.) On the road, the wings and tail unit were designed to be towed behind the vehicle. Aerocars can drive up to 60 miles per hour and have a top airspeed of 110 miles per hour.
Mid-century Americans had every reason to have high expectations for this type technology. The past fifty years had seen far cruder prototypes of technology such as the car, airplane and helicopter develop into impressive and commercially viable machines. With the Depression and the war out of the way, there was every reason to believe that the turn-around time from early working model to full production would only get faster. If they could build one jet pack today, surely they could have the bugs worked out in a year or two.

That's a Bell Rocket Belt, in case you're curious.

We could argue about exactly why personal aviation never grew beyond the small niche it has occupied for the past few decades, but there's no question that a time traveler from fifty years ago would be surprised at our lack of progress in this area.

Nor do we have a lot of progress to report in the rest of transportation. I'm still not sure how to explain why we actually regressed in terms of transatlantic travel speeds from what we were doing thirty years ago.

1 comment:

  1. I remember pouring over a book on light aircraft design by a professor, a one K.D. Wood that my dad brought home for work. One the chapter on economics, he had an example calculating the speed at which people of different occupations should drive, based on the differential cost of driving at different speeds and how much per hour they earned.

    Since 30 years ago, many more people of lesser means fly, their time is worth less, fuel more, and probably there is a realization that when you fly, the whole day is ruined anyways.

    The 787 started off as a faster machine, but for economic reasons the design was pushed towards higher efficiency. And not much getting around, fuel efficiency tracks the inverse square of air speed, and linear with air density.