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Waldo Waterman Aerobile, 1957

An inventor who names his first plane the Whatsit is clearly headed for the Flying Car Hall of Fame.

Waldo Waterman, pasing with Whatsit, 1934

Like so many of the other air pioneers, Waldo Waterman went into the air at the first possible opportunity, building a glider in 1909 when he was 15 and crashing in an underpowered plane at 16. No mere broken ankles could stop a true air nut, although they did keep him out of the trenches in WWI. Having studied aeronautical engineering at Berkeley, Waterman wound up at the School of Military Aeronautics teaching the theory of flight. Thinking about theory left him with some crazy ideas, like "why does an airplane need a tail, anyway?" Standard theory had all sorts of answers to that question, stability being the primary one, but the so-called "flying wing" offered advantages of less weight, more interior space, and less drag so in 1932 Waterman built the Whatsit. The Whatsit was not a flying car - the cockpit sat on top of the swept-back wings - and, considering the number of times it crashed, could hardly be called a flying airplane.


Three years of tinkering led to the Arrowplane (sorry, Oliver Queen), a much better flying wing that crossed the country from Santa Monica, CA to Washington, DC as part of a government competition to find a good cheap, "flivver" airplane. Nobody got the cost down far enough to meet the goal of a $700 craft - Henry Ford couldn't get the Ford Flivver into production - but at least it taught Waterman to put the cockpit and its wheels underneath the boomerang-like wings and to borrow existing technology, like a Studebaker auto engine. If you're going to build a flying car, think like a car. It all came together on February 21, 1937 when the combo, now named the Arrowbile, flew, dumped its wings, and drove off, all documented as shown in this silent newsreel footage from March 2, 1937.

There it was. The flying car concept proved once and for all. And by an American, with no technicalities to sweep under the wing. Americans, naturally, went plane crazy. Life magazine, only two years old but already the public-certified repository of all things American, ran a large spread in its August 16 issue. "Daughter Jane" Waterman is brought in to sit at the wheel, though the photographs carefully do not show her while the craft is moving.

Life, August 16, 1937

Bringing in established commercial names as early product placement was another brilliant idea of Waterman's. Press releases by the hundreds were reprinted in newspapers where they were already customers and they took out separate ads to draw even more attention, like this one from Sunoco.

Harrisburg Telegraph, Nov. 9, 1937

For my money, though, the most brilliant of all the publicity stunts - not just for the Arrowbile but for any flying car - came earlier that year, just days after the epic first flight. The photo, sent out by the Associated Press wirephoto service, appeared in newspapers across the country. In one simple image, the flying car is removed from the exoticness of new technology to be made a part of everyday life; a motorcycle cop stops the Arrowbile on the road to write out a traffic ticket.

AP Wirephoto, February 1937

As always, the publicity soared far ahead of reality. We never got a flying car and Waldo Waterman is not remembered any more than Wrong-Way Corrigan. Several realities intruded. For one thing, that Life article mentions the price at $3,000, not even close to the $700 figure that made a small airplane affordable and also not even close to the truth, which was a limousine-sounding $7,000. Nor did the Arrowbile fly all that well over long distances; all three Arrowbiles that left on a trip to the New York Air Show crashed or broke, although one made it to the city by hitching a ride on the back of a farm truck. Studebaker balked and so did all the other investors. Waterman tried again in the 1950s, with a similar machine slightly renamed as the Aerobile, the one that sits in the Smithsonian today as it has since 1961. Straight from the headlines to a museum. That's the story of the flying car.

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