Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Plane in Every Driveway

Either folks in the early '30s were positively airplane crazy, or the companies that built airplanes wanted to manufacture that impression. Issues of The New Yorker have contained airplane advertisements from the late '20s, but by March 15, 1930, the trickle of plane promotion has become a flood.

Half of the advertisements are devoted to commercial flights, either for vacationers ("Havana") or commuters ("New York to Boston"). The commuter flights were surprisingly cheap ($11 or so) and seemed to involve some level of comfort: in-flight food, heated cabin, the works.

The advertisements for PRIVATE airplanes are far more interesting. It seems you could buy a plane for about $1000, and by folding up the wings you could keep it in an ordinary car garage. The implication, by 1930, really was that you could store and use a plane enough to make the price worthwhile...though they're a bit vague about what you'd actually use the plane FOR. And they tend not to mention picky things like "runways" and "engine maintenance" and "maximum load."

I'm looking at an advertisement for a personal open cockpit biplane from the Travel Air Company. It's the story of a man whose wife -- after landing the plane "on the lower lawn" -- finally talks her father-in-law into "going up." He has the time of his life and is an instant convert to private air travel...but he never says "Wait a minute...what do you guys use this thing for?"

And that IS the question. Why don't we each have an airplane in the garage? I suppose because few of us have "lower lawns" to use as runways, and neither do our workplaces. Maybe most of us are afraid of heights. Or maybe air congestion would be too difficult a problem to solve. Or -- most likely -- the growing passenger capacity of commercial air travel made private planes less essential to most of those who would have bought them.

Today I only know one person with a pilot's license. I'll have to ask him what he plans to use it for. I hope he'll have some insight into the practicality of air travel.

PS: In the same issue of the magazine, the London correspondent laments the sorry state of air travel in England. Apparently the problem was that the airplane insurance was so high that each year's payment equalled the cost of the plane itself.


Brian Busby said...

Why no plane in my garage? I blame the commercial airlines, which, as hinted, were working hand in hand with the insurance companies.

Lower lawn, pshaw! The street is fine... just as long as the neighbourhood kids aren't playing hockey. And, really, they move their nets for cars... why not a plane?

Adam Thornton said...

This would all be solved if we had pedal-powered helicopters!

Gary said...

I remember reading an article in Popular Mechanics (late '60's or early '70's) about a hybrid - sort of a trailer that you could attach to a car, and - voila - you have an airplane!

I think the inventor's name was Nash.

Now, in Googling the topic, I found a 2006 Business Week article on the subject:

I guess the dream never dies!

Adam Thornton said...

Baffling, Gary! Thanks for the link!