Waldo Waterman: Pipe Smoking Aeronautical Genius

If we transported someone from around a hundred years ago to the present time, we might expect them to be impressed by cell phones, satellites, interstate highways, computers, and digital media, not to even mention BBQ potato chips. There are lots of things we have now that should impress those people, but our time travelers would be disappointed. They would not be so astounded by the future as we might think. They would look disgustedly at the sky and say, "I was told there'd be flying cars."

We all expected cheap, reliable flying cars by now, because magazine covers for a hundred years have told us to expect them any day. And we do indeed have some flying cars even now, but only in experimental phases. Personal drones are looking like a wave of the future, but let's not start putting them on magazine covers everywhere just yet. We've been burned before.

The convenience of flying cars has eluded us. We rarely think about them now, except when in traffic, daydreaming about zooming over four stationary lanes of traffic and calling downward, "So long, suckers!" Let's face it, that's the main attraction of flying cars: to avoid traffic, yes, but most important, to avoid traffic lines that others must endure. Once we all have them, they won't seem such an advantage as we hover in heavy traffic, wondering why they didn't install an ashtray, going nowhere, wishing we had parachutes to escape the godawful congestion.

The reason we've been expecting the convenience of aircraft in our driveways is because they've been around since the 1930s, when a competition motivated inventors to produce a flying car that was affordable (under $700), safe, and easy for non-aviation-expert consumers to use everyday. Among the winners of the contest was Waldo Dean Waterman, now widely regarded as the inventor of the flying car. He'd probably be more recognizable if we actually had flying cars everywhere, but when we do, Waterman will be more widely heralded as the pipe smoking aviation genius that he was.

Early Life To World War I

Waterman, an illustrious aircraft designer, aeronautical engineer, mechanic, and aviator born in 1894, was an early achiever, building and flying his own manned glider at age 15. He flew that glider both on its own and towed by an automobile. In 1910, at age 16, he and a partner built a full-sized, powered airplane. That aircraft failed to take off under its own power and had to be towed to get it into the air to demonstrate its aeronautical capabilities, which were less than excellent. In fact, he crashed that plane and broke both ankles.

He did not fight in WWI because one of his legs was an inch-and-a-half shorter than the other. The U.S. Naval Air Force at that time consisted of a total of three planes, which were moved to North Island, where Waterman met and became friends with the pilots of those aircraft, one of whom was Ens. V. D. Herbster, who invited Waterman on flights. On one such flight the pair had to splash into San Diego Bay, destroying one third of the Navy's Air Force.

Although he could not enlist, he contributed to the war effort and was put in charge of the University of California Department of the Theory of Flight in the School of Military Aeronautics, where many of his students went on to attain impressive careers. Waterman didn't like teaching, however, and wanted to get back into the air himself, becoming chief engineer for the U.S. Aircraft Corp. for a short time after the war before starting his own Waterman Aircraft Manufacturing Co. in Santa Monica.

Other Careers

Manufacturing planes wasn't enough for him, and he started barnstorming around California as well, doing aeronautical stunt flying for admiring crowds. It was a popular form of entertainment during the 1920s and Waterman was among the best.

He had a long and illustrious career as chief engineer for a number of aircraft companies and as the inventor of numerous flight innovations, but Waterman's invention of the flying car is what we most remember now.

The Aerobile

It was the Waterman Aerobile, built in 1937, and it worked by turning accepted flight engineering on its head. This aircraft was based on his previous design for a plane that he called the "Whatsit," because those who viewed it invariably asked, "What is it?" It had a swept-wing design (angled rather than straight out from the fuselage), no tail, and a push-style motor, and its design would be modified into the Waterman Arrowplane, which was the prototype for the Aerobile.

It was a compact plane with a removable wing and was designed to be easily used by everyday people on the streets and in the skies. The government had issued a call for a "Model T of the air," something accessible and reliable, and the Aerobile captured the imagination of the country.

Only five Aerobiles were built, primarily because the Second World War made it impossible to pursue manufacture and distribution. One of them is in the Smithsonian, though not currently on display. While they captured the imaginations of many, they did not capture sufficient funding for production. Waterman tried and failed to bring it into production during the '40s and '50s but did not have success.

That plane launched an avid interest in easy, cheap and accessible flight for average citizens, and we still complain about not yet having them. Waterman was ahead of his time.

Pipe Smoking

He was also a pipe smoker, though we can find little except for a few photographs to confirm that. In one, he's smoking an LC or LC-styled Dunhill bent Billiard. In another, he's smoking a similarly shaped pipe but without a stem logo and with some sort of metal mount or accent at the end of the shank. He seems to have preferred large, bent pipes.

It's little surprise that Waterman was a pipe smoker. Innovators through modern history have smoked pipes, and Waterman was among the most colorful members of our society. Next time you find yourself wishing for a flying car, you might think back to this brilliant pipe smoker and wish that he was still among us and designing the vehicles necessary to help everyday people attain the skies.


Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers History


    • Jack+ on January 8, 2021
    • What a great write up, Chuck! I've never heard of Waterman before and that video was awesome. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • DaveC on January 10, 2021
    • Being an aviation history "geek" of sorts (especially for Pioneer Era [1903-1914], WW I & Golden Age aviation - Waldo fits in best with the "interwar" Golden Age era), I've known about Waldo Waterman for quite come time...I've noted that he did favor full-bent briars for nearly all occasions, and for something that WOULD sound "pleasing" to SmokingPipes.com customers, Waldo definitely seemed to have a firm affinity to those then-solely Irish full-bents, exactly as Alexander Graham Bell also enjoyed...Peterson "System" full-bent briars!

    • ronnib on January 10, 2021
    • Thanks for the totally obscure information that I can add to my database of little-used-or-cared-for pursuits...which includes inventing a calabash for scuba divers. Now I know the answer to "Where's Waldo?" I will surely rest better in my nightly coma. :-)

    • Phil Wiggins on January 10, 2021
    • Awesome A Man A!!!

    • Mark on January 14, 2021
    • I had never before heard of Waterman, so thank you. He seems to have been an extraordinary man. That said, I have always dreaded the idea of flying cars. You alluded to its possible disadvantages, i.e. traffic jams in the sky once the winged cars become available and affordable, but it’s worse than that. Imagine for everyone on the ground the nightmare of the noise of flying cars everywhere, and even the sight of the skies polluted with the damn things buzzing around wherever you look up. What little peace we still have in the 21st century would be gone forever. And of course there would be accidents and breakdowns. A minor fender bender, or an engine that quits, is unpleasant and inconvenient on the ground for the people directly involved, but in the sky such relatively insignificant events, not to mention major crashes, would send everything and everyone crashing down to earth, on top of people, houses, or anything else that happens to be where debris and people fall from above. It gives me the creeps just thinking about it. I fervently hope flying cars remain a fantasy.

    • D. on January 14, 2021
    • Quantum computers are already in the works, and I believe NASA has broken a record in teleporting particles over the longest distance. In the future, maybe, there won't be flying cars but teleportation booths. Which is also creepy if you've ever watched The Fly. There was a show on TV called The Prophets Of Science Fiction (I think that was the title), perhaps whatever human beings can conjure up in the imagination can one day become a reality. Nice read

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