The Fanciful Future of Flight, Circa 1930

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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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