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.
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.
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.
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.