STANLEY HILLER - THE REAL LIFE TOM SWIFT
Stanley Hiller, Jr., was as close to a real-life Tom Swift as the 20th century ever produced, including the actual inspiration for the for the original set of Tom Swift books, Glenn Curtiss. Born with a wealth of tinkerer genes from his father, a man who had built his own airplane in 1910 at the age of 20 and would go on to hold 40 patents, Stanley’s life as a boy beat out Curtiss’ as a man for a series of should-have-been young adult books. Imagine Stanley Hiller and the Go-Kart set in 1932, in which he salvages the motor from his mother’s broken washing machine and whizzes around the neighborhood in a motorized buggy at the age of 8, frequently getting stopped by laughing police. At 10 it’s Stanley Hiller in the Air when his pilot father customizes his plane with a booster seat and built-up pedals and teaches him how to fly. Stanley Hiller and the Race Car Empire would detail the creation of the Hiller “Comet,” a tiny model car that hit 60 mph on a backyard track and proved so popular that at 17, a year after he had been accepted into the University of California at Berkeley, Stanley’s personal Hiller Industries turned out 350 of them a month, generating a yearly gross of $100,000, more than any baseball player of the day made. The somewhat technical Stanley Hiller and Aluminum Die-Casting had the proper military tinge in 1942 when the government used the still teen-aged Stanley’s innovative cooling process for casting aluminum to supply parts for fighter jets.
All these were companion volumes to the epic-length Stanley Hiller and the Co-Axial Helicopter. Helicopters remained unstable beasts at the start of World War II, necessitating tying in a tail rotor to offset the yaw produced by the main, overhead, rotor. No doubt thousands of 15-year-olds across the country thrilled themselves by reading the tinkerer magazines about Igor Sikorsky’s pioneering work on copters and some few may have mentioned the instabilities to their fathers and said, “I have some ideas about how to correct that.” Placing two rotors spinning in opposite directions, known as co-axial rotors, on top of a copter worked just fine, as a startled Army officer learned after the start of the war when Stanley showed up at his Washington office lugging a 100-pound model. He had already received his draft notice, which the Army immediately deferred so they could ship Stanley back to California to run Hiller Industries. And, not so incidentally, to fly the first helicopter ever built on the west coast, a true achievement for someone who hadn’t yet been in the same state as a working copter. That earned him his first of many articles in the popular science press when the December 1944 Mechanix Illustrated started its gosh-wow tribute with “Stanley Hiller, teen-age tycoon, casually sat down in his workshop and built the co-axial flying machine DaVinci dreamed about.” And yes, he did indeed call it the “Hiller-Copter.” What else? Regular readers of the magazine probably took the wild hyperbole of magazine prose with a grain of salt, as numerous other inventors had been working with co-axial helicopters for more than a decade. Before Hiller made his first million, Andalusia, Alabama inventor Jess Dixon cooked up a combination of “automobile, helicopter, autogiro, and motorcycle” in 1941, although it looked more like a motorized wheelchair with a horizontal kite hanging off the back for stability.
A year earlier a New Yorker named George de Bothezat made news by connecting rotors to a frame for his body, looking very much like a helicopter version of a jetpack, a probably unworkable design that Hiller would later adapt into a safer and more steerable "flying platform". Hiller’s wartime improvements amounted more toward ease of use than new principles; still, a teenager getting working money from the Army during the war made for irresistible copy.
Nor was ease of use a small point. Helicopters were infamous for being as unwieldy as a Rube Goldberg contrivance, requiring the instincts and limb control of a caffeinated octopus. Hiller won a series of impressive prizes for his helicopter controls during and after the war, leading to Hiller Industries building popular models whose claim to fame was that a student could learn to pilot one in a matter of minutes. A helicopter that anyone could fly and afford sent out futuristic vibrations that hit the same synapses as those for the flying car, perhaps with a stronger signal as the concept of a helicopter worked even better as a device to whisk you over the traffic and reach your destination in the least time. Not surprisingly, therefore, the years after World War 2 saw a steady stream of articles touting the convenience of a helicopter to get you where you want to go and predicting that city dwellers would see all buildings equipped with landing pads on the roof while suburbanites sported plane-mobile built-in skyports on their wide driveways and lawns, with titles like “Post-War Travel: The Autoist Will Also Take to the Air,” “Helicopters for Everybody,” “Family Flivver-Copter,” “Coming: Rooftop Airports,” and “Helicopter in Every Garage?” The image that most people kept in their heads appeared on the February 1951 issue of Popular Mechanics. Just as Mechanix Illustrated had done in 1946 with the Plane-Mobile flying car cover, this also featured a suburban commuter backing his helicopter up his driveway to his cozy ranch-style home with breezeway, going the earlier artist one better by showing how the copter will fit into the one-car garage, rotors and all. By then no reader should have been surprised that the tiny two-person ramjet-powered helicopter “coupe” was the brainchild of one Stanley Hiller.
Or that he invented a "rocketship." The March 1950 Mechanix Illustrated featured his VJ-100, which would take off and land vertically and then shift into horizontal flight at 650 mph. The pilot was supposed to strap himself into place standing up, next to his "copilot-observer" but lay in a prone position while in flight to make themselves less susceptible to blackouts at high speed. Well, that and to take their weight off their broken ankles. Not a true space ship, the craft was intended for long-distant earthly flights in an era before any commercial jet planes flew. And this was a jet, not a rocket, since it was powered by a Rolls-Royce engine. The conversion to rocket power would happen later. He was still just 25, give him his enthusiasms.
The Korean War ate up all Hiller’s production facilities with military orders for his workhorse copters, but in peacetime his imagination continued to churn out variations on personal vertical take-off vehicles. “Someday soon you may be able to ride a column of air to work,” proclaimed an anonymous scribe for the June 1955 issue of Popular Science. “You would step out of the house after a leisurely breakfast, jump into the family ‘flying saucer’ parked on the lawn and be whisked away to your plant or office in a few minutes.” Fortunately, the article came with pictures that brought the concept down to earth. The Hiller Aerial Platform was simply that: a circular platform centered over two huge double-deck rotors which created lift so smoothly that “a trained bear” could operate one merely by leaning in the proper direction and letting the direction of the air stream move it forward, backward, or sideways as one pleased, known as kinesthetic control. Intended for military use, the platform might have been ingenious but filled no niche in the readers’ imaginations.
If the public cared at all about vertical get up and go, they longed for a flying car that was a true flying car. Not a convertible airplane, nothing with wings, no fiddling with landing gear or airport runways. They wanted magic, a flying carpet in the shape of a 1957 DeSoto, nacelles distinctly optional. In the least surprising outcome since the Yankees winning the World Series the previous October, Stanley Hiller lit up the tinkerer press with an astounding vision.
The Hiller Aerial Sedan, as lovingly featured in the July 1957 Popular Mechanics, came in many flavors, from a flying crane to a military all-purpose Jeep to a handy over-the-treetops vehicle for Mr. and Mrs. Commuter. Billed on the cover as “Your Flying Car for 1967,” the artist drew a standard 1957 sedan body with two horizontal ducted fans – fans mounted inside a couling, so they would provide more thrust than an unenclosed helicopter rotor, just as in the aerial platform – in front and two more in back. The four fans lifted the car straight off the ground while a push of a lever changed the angle of thrust and moved the car forward or brought it to a halt. Editors of tinkerer magazines around the world seized the concept and milked it for cover art, including a twin nacelle version on France’s Science et Vie and Meccano Magazine’s blatant steal of Popular Mechanics’s artwork, merely changing the car color to red and posing it across a background of distant freeway streetlamps that looked like stars. Flying cars in space! You could almost hear the concept stretched until it snapped.
The Army ordered up several variations from competing companies. None of the tests went well and after a series of crashes the entire program was cancelled, both the Flying Jeep and the Recon Car two rotor version. Hiller went back to making helicopters for a while, then went into business as a corporate turnaround specialist - not the kind who fires everybody and sells out variety, I hasten to add. He won Smithsonian's 2002 National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Lifetime Achievement and died four years later, while the fifth generation of Tom Swift books were being published.