When's the last time you caught a ride in an autogiro?
- By T.A. Heppenheimer
- Air & Space magazine, March 2003
(Page 3 of 5)
Cierva formed a partnership with U.S. airplane builder Harold Pitcairn, who also ran a lucrative airmail route (which he sold to a business that developed it into Eastern Airlines.) Amelia Earhart flew one of the Pitcairn-Cierva craft and praised its safety and ease of control.
But another aircraft was under development in the 1930s that would outshine the autogiro, and by the end of the decade, Igor Sikorsky had mastered its design. A helicopter, which had a powered rotor, could hover, take off and land vertically. Even though the autogiro was faster, the helicopter’s eventual success in military operations proved to be so sweeping that the autogiro vanished entirely.
Custer Channel Wing
There’s something valiant, if clown-like, about the Custer Channel Wing. The semi-circular troughs on either side of its fuselage are suggestive of the oversized ears on Disney’s cartoon elephant, Dumbo. But these channels, through which air was sucked at high speeds by propellers, also created enough lift to bestow on the aircraft Dumbo’s amazing capability for short takeoff and landing (STOL). The aircraft could take off in as little as 150 feet.
The Channel Wing was the lifelong obsession of Willard Custer, a distant relative of the general who died fighting the Sioux at Little Big Horn. Custer flew his first version in 1942 and submitted it for military evaluation, but the Army saw no reason to pursue it. Undaunted, Custer sought backers for a civilian aircraft. A 1953 version flew successfully at speeds as low as 22 mph, and actually hovered in an 11-mph wind, but Custer proved a more talented inventor than financial manager. Although his aircraft never went into production, Custer does have a place in aviation history. His first Channel Wing is in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, and his third can be seen at the Mid Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Since The Man with the Golden Gun’s Scaramanga fled James Bond in a custom fastback-cum-airplane, villains everywhere have patiently awaited a production model. Unfortunately for them, manufacturers have been unable to sustain enthusiasm for the concept.
Convair, a major wartime manufacturer, crafted prototypes of its ConvAirCar in the late 1940s (one was reported to have circled San Diego for over an hour), but the effort ended after one of them crashed and another was lost in a fire.
Two models, Robert Fulton Jr.’s Airphibian and Moulton Taylor’s Aerocar, eventually won certification from the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration’s predecessor, but it was the public, not the government, that needed to be convinced. Taylor, dean of the so-called “roadable” airplane, came close to getting his craft into production in 1961, after it had been featured in a popular 1950s TV show starring Bob Cummings. The firm of Ling-Temco-Vought promised to build 1,000 Aerocars if Taylor could persuade 500 enthusiasts to each plunk down $1,000. He rounded up little more than half that number, and the venture died.
Fulton’s Airphibian also hit a dead end; after 200,000 miles of driving and 6,000 successful flights, it lost its financial backers. They pulled out of Fulton’s company, Continental, Incorporated, and took with them eight production Airphibians meant for CAA inspectors.