Where's My Flying Car?

This post is part of our July “Unexpected America” blog series, focused on intriguing or surprising American history research from 1776 to today. Check back with us all month to see what new scholarship our authors have to share! (Photo Credit Nicholas Raymond)

When people discover that I study the history of private aviation – that is, individuals using personal planes for transportation or pleasure – some respond in jest, “So, where’s my flying car?” Long the stuff of science fiction, images of revolutionary flying cars “currently under development” periodically grace the cover of magazines like Popular Mechanics, suggesting that this dream is still alive and well.

So far the track record for making this dream a reality is dismal, with prices skyrocketing and performance (both on the ground and in the air) plummeting once designers start to grapple with the very different demands of driving and flying. Cars must be relatively heavy and robust to withstand the incessant pounding of high speed travel over potholed pavement; airplanes, on the other hand, must be kept as light as possible in order to leave the ground. As a result, true “flying cars” that you can store in your garage, drive to the local airport, convert into an airplane to fly somewhere else, then convert back into a car for local transportation at your destination, are both lousy airplanes and lousy cars.

Since flying cars still aren’t technically viable, why don’t we all have our own private airplanes, instead? An obvious answer is price, since today even the cheapest new four-seat personal plane costs ten times more than a nicely equipped family sedan. Proponents of private aviation have long blamed high production costs on low volume. For instance, the Cessna 172, the most popular personal plane ever built, has a total production run of less than 50,000 since its introduction six decades ago in 1955, compared to more than 3,000,000 Honda Accord automobiles sold in the United States in the past 10 years alone. The logic here is that if more people became pilots and purchased planes, the cost per plane would drop significantly. Then there’s the issue of practicality. Unless an airplane is equipped with the expensive instruments needed to fly in bad weather, and the pilot has completed the costly and technically demanding training to use them, personal planes are grounded by low clouds and poor visibility that wouldn’t even slow highway traffic.

With these factors in mind, perhaps it’s not surprising that there are only around 600,000 active civilian pilots in the United States today, less than 0.2 percent of the nation’s population. But seven decades ago as World War II drew to a close, many people believed that the dream of “an airplane in every garage” was just around the corner. Building on prewar public enthusiasm, Cessna Aircraft Company published dozens of full-page wartime magazine advertisements promising Americans their very own “Cessna Family Car of the Air…the postwar airplane that you’ll be able to buy and fly if you can buy and drive an automobile.” In a deliberate attempt to downplay traditional associations between masculinity and flying, Cessna used images of men and women of all ages serenely steering their futuristic “Family Car of the Air” through the sky. Public opinion polls suggested that there was a willing market, too; according to one wartime survey, 39 percent of men and women reported having “a desire to learn to fly,” and enthusiasm ran even higher among younger respondents, with 69 percent of those 18 to 24 years old aspiring to become pilots.

At first, it looked like this dream of personal planes for everyone might really come true. Hundreds of thousands of former GIs swelled the ranks of licensed fliers from under 34,000 in 1939 to more than 580,000 by 1951. And although Cessna never delivered on its wartime promise (producing instead a less revolutionary entry-level airplane that came nowhere close to making flying as easy as driving), during the mid-1940s another company, ERCO, manufactured and sold several thousand Ercoupes, a small two-seat plane that was arguably safer and simpler to fly than anything on the market even today. So why didn’t the “Family Car of the Air” concept catch on?

Practicality and price were certainly factors, although the cost of a new entry-level plane was much closer to that of an automobile at the time than it is today. But the culture surrounding private flying also played a significant role. For instance, since the vast majority of new pilots were young men fresh from military service, anyone who stopped by the local airport to enquire about flying lessons was more likely to encounter a cluttered “man cave” (in today’s terms) than a clean, family-friendly recreational site. Once in the cockpit, many new students discovered that former military flight instructors employed the same harsh teaching techniques, including a steady stream of verbal abuse, they had used during the war to prepare young men for life-or-death aerial combat. The new, mostly-male generation of WWII-trained private pilots even shaped the technology of postwar private aviation. Showing a strong preference for individual skill over technological innovations that simplified flying, they ultimately rejected the Ercoupe and other designs with built-in safety features as “sissy” planes in part because these aircraft threatened to open the sky to almost anyone with minimal training. This highly masculine culture surrounding postwar private flying reinforced notions both inside the airport fence and in the wide world beyond, that aviation was an activity by, for, and about men. Not only does this help explain why we don’t all have flying cars in our garage or hop in our own personal planes to travel, but it also helps explain why even today less than 10 percent of pilots are women.

Alan Meyer is an associate professor of history at Auburn University and a longtime private pilot. His book, Weekend Pilots: Technology, Masculinity, and Private Aviation in Postwar America, is available now.