September 03, 2015

(++++) UP, UP AND AWAY

Flying Cars: The True Story. By Andrew Glass. Clarion. $17.99.

     The cry of “where are the flying cars?” is a common one from people complaining that the future isn’t turning out the way they thought it would. Some people lament that instead of getting flying cars, we get lawn chairs lifted by balloons, or maybe someone using multiple drones to get up in the air, or perhaps we simply get substitute technologies that we never asked for (to the extent that “asking for” future technology means anything), such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. Or we move past flying cars to self-driving ones, which do exist but do not have the emotional appeal of ones that leap from the ground into the air.

     It is certainly true that flying cars have been a staple of science fiction for a century – how many pulp magazines featured “cities of the future” with cars zipping about? TV cartoons such as The Jetsons featured them, and they made their way, sometimes incidentally, into non-science-fiction movies as well: for example, It Happened One Night features a character arriving in an autogyro. But wait – that five-Academy-Award-winning 1934 film was a romantic comedy, not a drama, much less science fiction, and was character- and script-driven, not pushed by special effects. Does that mean autogyros really existed?

     Well, yes. Amelia Earhart flew one. Autogyros were flown twice onto the White House lawn (1931 and 1936), with President Herbert Hoover presenting a trophy to the pilot the first time. Later models of autogyro were “roadable,” as Andrew Glass explains in his thoroughly enthralling Flying Cars. “The rotors folded neatly back for driving, and the entire machine fit easily into an average-size garage.” But like so many of the fascinating inventions discussed in this first-rate blend of science, technology and history, the autogyro hit a series of bumps, some literal (Earhart crashed hers, claiming she was hit by a tornado) and some figurative (the autogyro’s inventor and financer died at age 41 – in the crash of a conventional airplane).

     Flying Cars is not a story of what might have been – it is a story of what really was. And therein lies its fascination. Flying cars do, and did, exist, but despite some heavyweight interest in developing them for the mass market, they never became commercially viable. Glen Curtiss, who received the first-ever official pilot’s license and was founder of what became the aircraft company Curtiss-Wright, created an “autoplane” with encouragement from telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Auto magnate Henry Ford ordered his engineers to make an affordable airplane that could be sold for the price of a Model T, and the result was the Sky Flivver (1926); but production was stopped after a pilot died during a promotional tour, although Ford continued to believe in “a combination airplane and motorcar.” Buckminster Fuller designed, but never tried to build, a flying car that would require inflatable wings and jet engines – which did not exist at the time (1928).

     The storied names are only part of the tale of flying cars. Far more of the dreamers and inventors who have been intrigued by this concept are very little known: Waldo Waterman, Theodore P. Hall, Daniel Zuck, Moulton B. Taylor and others. What is amazing is to realize is how much success flying-car advocates had: a number of their creations were built, really did work, and were put into limited use, at least for a time. The old argument against combining an automobile (whose parts requirements make it heavy) with an airplane (whose flight requirements mean it must be light) surfaces again and again in these stories, and is laid to rest again and again by success after success – only to be revived the next time someone comes up with a flying-car concept. Flying cars also ran repeatedly into geopolitical obstacles: the first wave of them in modern times had to be set aside so the focus could shift to military planes to be developed for World War I, and the second wave lost out to the equally war-focused development of helicopters in the run-up to World War II. In more-recent times, ever-increasing safety regulations have required cars to have more and more equipment that weighs them down and increases their complexity, making integration of an automobile with an airplane harder than ever – although backyard tinkerers still try and sometimes succeed, as Glass points out.

     Nor are tinkerers the only ones interested in flying cars. Glass’ final chapter tries to look “Into the Future” from the standpoint of today, discussing a modern aircar built around a $30,000 Lotus, a Massachusetts firm that says it has a design that switches from car to airplane in 30 seconds, a “carplane” being developed in Germany that is designed to switch from electric-car mode to internal-combustion-engine-powered airplane, and more. None of these is a mass-market vehicle along the lines envisioned by Henry Ford or autogyro pioneer Harold Pitcairn, and as safety regulations become ever more extensive and worries grow about the use of airspace (by drones as well as aircraft containing humans), the likelihood of “a plane-car in every garage” looks more and more like a never-to-be-realized dream. Still, “never say never” would be a pretty good motto for the innovators profiled in Flying Cars, since they were repeatedly told a car-plane combination could not possibly work, and repeatedly proved the doubters wrong, even if these amazing vehicles never did make it into general use. Yet.

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