Buy Your Plane at Penney’s

For a few magical years, it looked like every family would own an airplane.

“If you can drive a car, you can fly an airplane.” ERCO began selling the spin-proof Ercoupe from department stores in 1945 by marketing the vision that every family (represented in the publicity shot) could own one. (ERCO)
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The Ercoupe seemed to be reaching everybody. Magazine and newspaper features highlighted women pilots, usually as novelties, beneath headlines like “Any Woman Can Learn to Fly” and “A Missouri Miss Gets Her Wings.” Because ERCO could substitute another means of yaw control, legless veterans and civilians were getting checked out in Ercoupes without rudder pedals. There were heroic stories about non-pilot passengers successfully landing Ercoupes after the pilot became ill, passed out, or in one case died. Other stories were comic—Ercoupes flying Santa Clauses, wingless Ercoupes in street parades, Ercoupes getting parking tickets after being driven into town (once by a department store owner as a publicity stunt). There was even a criminal flying the Ercoupe: a 19-year-old student pilot who stole one, paying for it and a series of repairs with bad checks, with authorities chasing him all the way. His name: Charles Cessna, though no relation to the airplane maker.

Not everybody was happy about the demographics targeted for the postwar light airplane, and the department store sales tactic in particular. Many were concerned flying was being sold as far simpler than it really was. Civil Air Patrol cadet Bette Parks wrote to Skyways magazine in September 1945, “If you make it sound like a simple cinch, John Q [Public] is going to be so disgusted with all the complications—CAA rules, navigation, meteorology, etc., etc., that he won’t even go near an airplane.” A January 1946 article in Flying reported that “irate airport operators complain bitterly” about department store purchasers getting free instruction—up until they solo—and then being turned loose without any knowledge of the responsibilities that come with aircraft ownership. One purchaser didn’t even know he’d need a license.

Aviation writer Claude O. Witze darkened more clouds in his fictional conversations with a curmudgeonly character called Willie Wingflap, whom he featured in a Rhode Island newspaper, the Providence Journal. Through Willie, Witze expressed the concern that the new postwar airplanes were just pre-war designs being recycled as innovations, and although there were many veterans learning to fly on the GI Bill, few would be able to afford an airplane’s maintenance.

In the end, the killjoys called it: As rapidly as the light-airplane market boomed, it began to bust. In August 1946, ERCO was preparing for vastly increased volume projections, with Berliner estimating demand at 50 Ercoupes a day. “Then suddenly, during a single week in September, the airplanes on the field built up from 100 to 300,” Weick wrote in his book. “The dealer’s pipelines had filled up and they just could not handle any more volume.”

Berliner had to move quickly. His three shifts were cut to one, part-time. Then he shut down the Riverdale, Maryland plant for a month. The aviation press began reporting a “seasonal slump” in the light-airplane market, as had happened during the fall and winter before the war. Willie Wingflap knew better: “It looks to me,” he said, “as if the boom was only a pop.”

It was true. The manufacturers’ supply outpaced an over-predicted demand. The full-page newspaper ads and the department store showrooms disappeared. As for the light-airplane industry, Piper, Cessna, and Beech survived, but many others went under. In 1947, Berliner sold all of Ercoupe—rights, tooling, and materials—to Bob Sanders, the first of many manufacturers who would try to make the Ercoupe profitable. Ultimately, only about 5,500 were built.

Although the Ercoupe was never really successful as a commercial product, the Ercoupe Owners Club estimates more than 2,000 are flying today—a testament to Weick’s design and vision. Weick went on to make many great contributions to agricultural and civilian flying. Oliver Parks never slowed down, but donated his beloved air college to Saint Louis University, and left aviation for the business of prefabricated housing.

Just two years after the giant Macy’s New York Times ad helped launched the department store airplane experiment, another ad was published to end it. It took up no more than an inch in the classified section of the October 1947 issue of Flying magazine: Ercoupe 46. Display model with special paint job, starter, generator, and battery. 2 hours total time. $2100. Also Ercoupe 46, 25 hours total time, never damaged. $2000. Airadio—2 way, never used, $100. R.H. Macy & Co., Dept. 270, Herald Sq., NY.

Paul Glenshaw is a writer from Silver Spring, Maryland.

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor and writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.

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