The Fanciful Future of Flight, Circa 1930

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
December 16, 2003
Orville and Wilbur Wright undoubtedly were dreamers, because only
dreamers could have believed a century ago that it was possible to build
a machine that flew.

When the practical-minded brothers coaxed their fragile flyer into the air at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, they not only proved that powered flight was possible, they freed the imaginations of others who were just as fascinated by the idea of flying.

But many of the other dreamers didn't have the Wrights' practical understanding of the limits of technology and human capabilities. As aircraft design evolved and improved during the next three decades, engineers and artists came up with imaginative—and sometimes outlandish—ideas for flying machines. Many of the concepts were published in mass-circulation magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, and Popular Science. Some of these ideas were bizarre. Some were elegant. And some were downright silly.

The October 1922 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine proposed a "non-stop air express." Passengers would fly on a big, four-engine biplane. When the plane flew over their destinations, departing passengers would board a smaller biplane that would be lowered from the big plane by cables and then released.

But even a giant "air express" couldn't stay aloft long enough to cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the 1920s. So aviation visionaries started dreaming of creating stepping stones from the United States to Europe and Asia. Beginning in 1925 and continuing for years afterwards, magazine writers and artists forecast the construction of giant mid-ocean airports where planes could land and refuel while passengers stretched their legs.

In September 1932, Popular Science predicted that soon giant "islands of ice" would dot the oceans and serve as airports. A German engineer identified as Dr. A. Gerke proposed the ice islands, which he said could be built cheaply and quickly. Refrigeration equipment would allow the ice-ports to be built even in warm waters, Gerke believed. The ice islands would have airplane and dirigible hangars, hotels, and docks for ocean liners, he predicted.

At the same time magazine artists were cooking up their flights of fancy, a more practical man was getting some ideas as well. Henry Ford had changed Americans' lives in the 1920s with his cheap, mass-produced Model T automobiles. But Ford also was looking skyward, and he predicted that one day Americans would be hopping around in cheap flying "air flivvers" that eventually would replace the automobile.

Flying fantasies took deeper root in the public imagination in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh made his non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris.

"That flight captured the world's imagination," said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. "Lindbergh was the first media celebrity. For the next ten years, aviation was the cutting edge. Where did all the dreamers and thinkers want to be? In aviation."

The future that these aviation visionaries foresaw was one of continuing progress and prosperity, where literally anything was possible. And the grim Great Depression of the 1930s seemed to evoke an instinctive need for cheerful optimism about the future. Concerns about environmental impacts and regulatory restrictions didn't enter the dreamers' minds. Artists cranked out gorgeous paintings of streamlined aircraft that would make flying a wonderful experience.

In June 1933, Popular Science wrote that soon a giant flying wing would carry passengers on transoceanic flights. Passengers would have a spectacular view from huge observation bays in the front and rear of the wing.

Designs for strange-looking personal aircraft also began appearing in the 1930s. In July 1939, Popular Science reported that a "gyroplane" resembling a "flying windmill" would eventually be built. The pilot would sit in a clear plastic bubble. The aircraft's engine would be in a compartment beneath the pilot, and the craft's spiral, revolving wings would protrude above from the bubble.

World War II forced the public to put aside notions of futuristic aircraft for a few years, but by the mid-1940s the flying fantasies were returning. In June 1944, Popular Science invited readers to describe the "air flivver" they wanted to own after the war ended. By 1946, ambitious engineers were making the dream of flying flivvers a reality.

In the late 1940s, Robert Fulton Jr. built an "airphibian"—an airplane with detachable wings that could be driven on the highway like an automobile. Fulton's creation could cruise at 110 miles per hour (180 kilometers per hour) as an airplane and do at least 50 miles per hours (80 kilometers per hour) on the road.

At the same time, Moulton Taylor designed and built his "aerocar," which differed from the airphibian because its detachable wings could be towed like a trailer on the highway.

The dawn of the space age added a new dimension to the fantasies of flying. "We were all going to be flying between the planets by 2010, like George Jetson," Knapinski says, referring to the popular cartoon family of the 1960s that lived in a futuristic world of flying automobiles and outer space apartments.

The dream of a small, cheap vehicle that could transport people by air or ground is a difficult one to realize, however. "There are always hurdles to get over—technological or regulatory or economic," Knapinski said.

For starters, it's very difficult to design a vehicle that can travel on roads and leap into the air. A vehicle that can do 65 miles per hour (105 kilometers per hour) on a modern highway needs a big, powerful motor. But an engine that moves an automobile at highway speeds might be too heavy to get a small personal aircraft off the ground. And an engine that combines the right power-to-weight ratio for a small airplane might have a top speed of 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour) or less on the ground.

Sometimes, it's public attitude—in the form of regulations and politics—that stop a new innovation from going into production. For example, the United States had the technology to build a supersonic transport airplane in the 1970s, but an American version of this aircraft didn't go into production because of public concerns about fuel use and noise. "The SST was something that was technologically ready, but the public was not ready for it," Knapinski said.

Still, Knapinski says the dream of personal aviation survives today among pilots who build and fly their own small aircraft—exactly as the Wright Brothers did a century ago and just as the imaginative artists and designers of the 1930s envisioned.

"There are thousands of homebuilt aircraft built and regulated in the United States every year," Knapinski said. "It doesn't involve rocket belts or time travel. A single person takes his or her own dream of flight and makes it a reality. The dreamers from the '30s are still there."

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books. For more information and details of how to order the book, visit the National Geographic Books Web site: Go>>

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