The Coming Air Age

Suppose, for instance, you decide to buy a two-place helicopter. The cost of teaching is included in the sales price, and you go to the dealer to be taught to operate the machine before taking delivery. He has a demonstrator in a suitable space. You both get in the cabin, and he explains the controls much as I have set them forth here. Now he presses the starter; the engine comes to life.

"Try it," he suggests. "Get the feel of it."

You speed up the rotor blades, you pull the left lift lever, but you do not rise, as you expect, to a disconcerting height; instead, a cable attached to the helicopter holds it some four feet above the ground, permitting you safely and easily to study the control movements. How simple this method of accustoming yourself to flying a helicopter! And I am certain that flying a direct-lift machine will become, in time, just as much an automatic habit as driving your motorcar is now. I envision helicopters, attached to the earth by cables, at hundreds of county fairs; thus, thousands of men, women, and children will operate the controls, safely enjoy the thrill of flying, and become air-minded.

A question certain to trouble you is this: With hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of helicopters flying in all directions at once, what about sky congestion and air traffic problems?

This problem has been foreseen and already a certain amount of planning has been done. While air traffic problems will not be at all comparable to what we now have with the motorcar, there must certainly be one-way air lanes within the limits and in the neighborhood of big centers of population. There will be "slow" and "fast" altitudes and you will choose the one that suits your temperament. Naturally, all helicopter highways will be at a safe distance from the airplane levels.

All helicopters, of course, will remain at a reasonable altitude over thickly populated centers. But there need be no such "flight plan " as airplanes now must often submit to before undertaking a long journey. Helicopter owners will fly at will, bound only by their common sense and some general traffic rules which are easily obeyed in the vast reaches of the sky.

Nor will the strict physical examination that now might prohibit many thousands from flying an airplane be necessary. A person who can drive an automobile can fly a helicopter; and a man or woman with middle-aged reflexes is just as safe in one as in the other because the helicopter, as a rule, is always moving slowly when close to the ground. The helicopter owner will have to pass no stricter examination than is—or should be—necessary for driving a motorcar. He should not be color-blind, his vision should be normal with or without glasses. A man or woman with a heart ailment should not drive a helicopter—nor an automobile.

You or your wife will have to pass a driving examination for a helicopter just as you must for an automobile. Then you can obtain insurance on your direct-lift machine as you do now on your car.

One more question will doubtless trouble you: What about the helicopter and the weather? Rain or snow, fog or wind? What happens to the helicopter and its average owner then?

Man has always been limited by weather, even when he moved only on foot or horse. Common sense tells us that no one will stir abroad in bad weather with a helicopter or any other conveyance unless necessity compels. Yet if bad weather surprises you, the helicopter possesses advantages that no other vehicle can claim. If you are caught in mid-air by fog, you may slow down to five or fifteen miles an hour, cautiously descend and pick your way to your destination or to some place where you can wait until conditions improve. A heavy snowfall will immobilize airplane and motorcar until airport runways and roads have been cleared. But a helicopter, rising directly from the snow, is not stormbound and may go anywhere. A physician hastily summoned on an emergency call before the roads are cleared can descend by helicopter at his patient's door. This is not speculative; our helicopters have been flown in rain and fog and wind to test these characteristics.

The helicopter easily reaches what were hitherto inaccessible regions. Some time ago I received a letter from a man who owns a mine with valuable ore deposits. But the mine is at the bottom of a canyon whose walls are 2000 feet of sheer drop. It is extremely difficult for him to get supplies down and the ore out. The direct-lift machine, of course, when we begin making it for peace instead of for war, will open an easy air highway to his mine.

Though I may not touch upon the uses of the helicopter in wartime, its ability to hover and lower a rope, for example, to help an exhausted swimmer climb up to safety should give some indication of its utility. The power of a helicopter to hide behind trees and in valleys and behind hills and also to skim swiftly over the most formidable land obstacles suggests its value on a field of battle.

In contrast to a war plane, which is useless in peace, a military helicopter is 75 per cent adaptable to commercial use. The improvements we make today will be used by you in the air age of tomorrow. I am convinced that the manufacture, sale, and upkeep of the direct-lift machine will become a billion-dollar industry within ten years after this war, just as the automobile industry grew colossally after the last. There will spring up associated industries, and a new prosperity. There will be many startling changes in our way of life.


What will some of these changes be? Most important, I think, is that hundreds of thousands of people can return to the health and beauty of the countryside. Suburban development has hitherto been limited by the range of the bus, the automobile, and the commuter's train. This has put a high price on real estate adjacent to railroad or highway—prices beyond the reach of the low-income groups. But because of the helicopter, millions of acres of hitherto inaccessible land will be developed with small homes for medium- or low-income groups. A cheap, swift helicopter bus service will ferry these people to and from their work. Suburbs will include ten thousand or more square miles. Real-estate values will come within the reach of average incomes, and the people will literally return to the good earth.

I envision a new type of architecture—perhaps a house with a flat roof and a pleasantly designed helicopter hangar to one side of it, so that you have only to wheel the machine a few feet to take off. Hotels in beautiful surroundings will provide landing and hangar space for touring. Now, a day's tour of 400 miles in a motorcar is considered a great accomplishment. An air voyage of 1000 miles in a helicopter will not be unusual or fatiguing.

Long-distance transportation of passengers and freight over land and sea will definitely remain the job for the large airplane, which can carry out such flights with greater speed and efficiency. Therefore the long flights across the continent, as well as the air travel to Europe, South America, or other remote corners of the world, belong definitely to the airliner. But the short haul of less than 1000 miles is equally the task of the helicopter, which can do it with the greatest efficiency.

Express and air mail will be carried from the airports to final destination by helicopter. There will be a direct-lift machine service to take airliner passengers from the airport to the city in a few minutes. There will be special delivery of perishable food to your door.

By the use of a helicopter shuttle service, oranges that were yesterday on the trees in Florida and California will be today moved to the big air-freight terminals and dropped off there. They will then reach your grocer's the next day by the freight helicopter's connecting lines to small centers of population—and from your grocer's will come to your door by his helicopter delivery service.

The winter growth of fresh vegetables such as beans and tomatoes, celery and lettuce, in the warm South and the Far West has been hitherto restricted because of cost and time of transportation to market. The airline and helicopter freight service will speed such healthy foods to the ends of the nation. Hence our eating habits will change perhaps more than we realize. Strawberries in January, as it were, available for all.

Private and bus helicopters will make possible vacations at seashore or mountain for countless thousands. The helicopter will destroy space for millions of people. Nothing, I believe, is more delightful than touring in a helicopter. To hover and fill one's eyes with an enchanting vista is to bring joy to the soul. So, while he who must hurry will speed to other continents and across oceans by airliner, the man who has time may tour in his helicopter distances now impossible to the motorcar.

South America will become a continent easily accessible for such tourists. Shall we not, then, see a hemispheric unity based on the understanding of thousands who will see much of South America through the glass of their helicopter cabin? I think so, for jungles hold no terrors for the helicopter. A small clearing suffices; if a helicopter settles down on a jungle forest, the machine may be irretrievable, but the passengers calmly descend to earth by a rope ladder. Equipped with floats instead of wheels, it can rise from your door and, if necessary, land in swamp or lake, river or savannah. The vast and beautiful Canadian north country with its thousands of gem-like lakes will be visited by helicopter tourists who will look upon breathless scenes never before, perhaps, seen by eye of man. Yes, we Americans, with our eager curiosity and desire to travel, will bind together North and South America by helicopter; and what will come of that, no man may now even hazard a guess.

But since he who can, will seek the cool Arctic in the summer and the warm and beautiful southern countries in the winter, there will be gas stations on the Canadian and Alaskan tundras—and hotels, too—and skilled mechanics in Point Barrow or Belize to check your helicopter.

In the American democracy are bred the daring, imaginative people who will know how to make use of the breath-taking possibilities of the helicopter. And when they do—within a decade after the war—we shall enter the new air age in which the helicopter will contribute toward the greatest prosperity our people and our country and the world have ever known.

* Editor's note—Igor Sikorsky, the aero-engineer, was born in Kiev, Russia, in 1889, and became an American citizen in his fortieth year. He designed and built flying machines on his own account from 1908 to 1911, and even in these pioneer days his thoughts were gravitating towards the helicopter. In the present war he is perhaps best known for the Sikorsky multimotored amphibian plane. But the story which he told in detail to Frederick C. Painton is an amazing promise of what flying might be when at last the fighting is over.

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