The Coming Air Age


The time is 1955; the place a lovely meadow surrounded by deep woods on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful lake in the Catskill Mountains 120 miles from New York. It is quarter past eight in the morning, and you are about to commute to your office in the city. Yet there is no paved highway nearer than fifteen miles, and it is fifty to a railroad station.

Now you hear a low hum, and over the horizon appears a flying machine. You press the button of a box near by and a radio signal flashes to the machine. The aircraft, looking oddly like a horizontal electric fan, drones toward you. When the pilot is directly overhead, all forward movement of the machine ceases and it descends vertically until the cabin door is within a foot of the ground.

On the machine's gray side is painted Helicopter Express to New York. As you make ready to enter, the direct-lift machine does not touch the ground; it poises motionless under its whirling rotor blades like a gigantic hummingbird. The door opens and you step inside; you nod a greeting to the co-pilot who takes your commutation ticket, you wave to those of the other fifteen passengers you know. The door closes and the helicopter immediately ascends vertically to 1000 feet. Now it darts ahead, quickly attaining a forward speed of 140 miles an hour.

The co-pilot says conversationally, "How do you like your new home? Good, eh? Popular spot here. So many people have moved into these mountains that we've had to put on an extra bus to carry them."

Fifty minutes later the helicopter bus hovers over a midtown New York building, descends slowly to alight on a roof space some sixty yards square. You go into the building, take the elevator to the street below, and walk half a block to your office. Not quite an hour has elapsed since you drank your morning coffee in your home. Des this sound like a fantasy imagined by Jules Verne? If so, I can assure you, as a practical aeronautical engineer, that such a trip is neither fantastic nor impractical. Any of us who are alive ten years after this Second World War is won will see and use hundreds of short-run helicopter bus services. We shall see hundreds of thousands of privately owned direct-lift machines carrying Americans about their business and their pleasures.

In forecasting this aviation development I am not drawing upon any imagination, nor am I depending upon the future invention of a direct-lift machine. A practical helicopter that can do everything I have just described is at this instant within a hundred yards of me. Less than an hour ago this craft was hovering motionless ten feet off the ground while a man climbed to the cabin by a rope ladder. With a pointed stick on the nose of our helicopter, it was possible to spear a wooden ring twelve inches in diameter fastened to a pole only four feet from the ground. The helicopter could be backed, turned, and stopped motionless in the air right in front of a man who plucked the ring off the helicopter's nose. In April 1941, the VS-300, piloted by its designer, exceeded the record of endurance for this type of craft by remaining in the air for one hour, thirty-two minutes. The novelty of this record flight was that the ship hovered during the entire period over one spot less than half an acre in area. Since that time considerable further progress has been achieved with this project.


But for the fact that the helicopter is now a war weapon—which means that all improvements must be shrouded in military secrecy—I could describe additional details which would show why I am convinced that a helicopter bus service, for instance, is not only practicable but, in fact, inevitable. Had the Second World War not turned all our thoughts to instruments of destruction, I do not believe you would have to wait another decade to see hundreds of thousands of helicopters in daily use.

So I must be content with picturing for you this coming air age as I believe it will be. The first question, naturally, is why mass flying should need to wait for the direct-lift machine—particularly because, in the past twenty-five years, many prophets have forecast air-minded millions taking to the sky in air-flivvers, the foolproof plane that anyone could pilot. Why did these prophecies fail of realization? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that as airplanes developed in size and range, the speed necessary for landing and take-off also increased. Indeed, airports grew so enormous in size that they had to be moved miles away from centers of population. Today, if you wish to take a journey of 200 miles, you spend thirty minutes riding to the airport, one hour traveling 200 miles, and thirty more minutes getting from the terminal airport to your destination. Thus the airplane came to be the slave of the airport and, like the railroad, became of value mainly as a medium of travel between established public terminals.

Another drawback to mass use of the airplane is that the speed of landing and takeoff usually exceeds the speed we are accustomed to in the automobile. Landing and taking off an airplane at such speeds demands good reflexes, quick decisions, and immediate action, particularly under unfavorable weather conditions. Hence the millions of Americans in middle life who can afford an airplane fail to buy one because they believe the machine takes more skill than they possess; and also because the airplane as a rule cannot carry them directly from home to office.

Yet these are the millions whose purchases made possible the fabulous automobile era. These are the millions who must be sold on the simplicity and safety of flying if we are to have—as we shall have—the era of aviation.

I first experimented with the helicopter as early as 1908. Now, once again, more than thirty years later, I have turned to a study of the direct-lift machine as the only aircraft that could take the speed out of landing and take-off, eliminate the necessity of runways, and hence bring to flying the door-to-door flexibility of the automobile.

The direct-lift machine, as finally made practical, has characteristics possessed by no other means of conveyance. It can hover, ascend and descend vertically at any speed you choose; it can stop, back up, go sideways with no forward motion. It is simple to operate and service. These are, I am certain, the essential attributes of an aircraft that can be used by hundreds of thousands of men and women, old and young.

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