DOWNTOWN — While Santa Monica’s position in the fabric of the aviation industry goes unquestioned, little is said of Waldo Waterman, the Santa Monican who pursued the dream of marrying the power of the automobile with the majesty of flight.
In the first half of the 20th century, Santa Monica was the beating heart of the aviation industry. Douglas Aircraft led the way in innovation, pioneering a series of planes for business and the military, the predecessors of the modern jet airplane.
It transformed a sleepy, bedroom community, filling it with blue collar jobs and people.
And yet if you ask those knowledgeable about aviation and its place in Santa Monica’s past about the Arrowplane or its creator Waldo Waterman, the details becomes murkier.
Dan Ryan, managing director of Santa Monica’s new Museum of Flying heard of it through whispers.
“It was lore from someone at the airport, years ago,” Ryan said. “One of the old timers.”
In fact, the Arrowplane was one of the early, relatively successful attempts at a goal almost as old as aviation itself — creating a vehicle that could take to the air as easily as it cruised America’s highways and byways, and was accessible to the common man.
The 1920s sparked the “flivver” movement, an attempt by the federal Bureau of Air Commerce Chief Eugene Vidal to inspire American companies to create an airplane that cost under $700 and was safe, said Dorothy Cochrane, the curator of general aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. where two of Waterman’s designs hang.
“Some people derided the idea that you could build a $700 aircraft,” Cochrane said, “and indeed, they were right.”
Nevertheless, the competition Vidal began led Waterman, a Santa Monica tinkerer and inventor, to create the Arrowplane, an evolution of previous designs that meant to marry land and air.
Combining the two technologies required for flight and driving is an inherently difficult task, said Bob Trimborn, manager of the Santa Monica Airport.
“You have boat planes, and sea-going planes, because they act the same way. You take a hull and put a wing on it and away you go,” Trimborn said. “A car is a wholly different thing.”
Inventors had to balance a car’s heft with an airplane’s need for lightness, and find a way for the plane’s rotor not to strike the ground or anything else while driving at street level, among other challenges.
According to the Smithsonian, Waterman’s first attempt at a tailless, road-worthy airplane was inspired by Glenn Curtiss, a pioneer aviator and creator of the amphibian, an aircraft that could glide on both wind and water, who fancied the idea of being able to drive away from a landing in field or water.
In 1932, a year before the federal government would announce its competition, Waterman designed and test flew the “Whatsit,” so-called because its strange appearance caused passersby to ask, “What is it?”
The Whatsit featured detachable wings that the driver/pilot could affix to the aircraft before taking off. It lacked pitch stability, and was nearly destroyed in an early test-run, which led Waterman to put the project in storage.
In 1933, Vidal issued his challenge, and when Waterman looked at the entry requirements, he saw that they were similar to the years of work he’d already put into the Whatsit. That model he redesigned into what is now called the Arrowplane, which won the federal competition.
Waterman established a company and planned for an assembly line for later versions of the Arrowplane, called the Aerobile, at what is now a Midas auto repair shop at Fifth Street and Colorado Avenue, said Nina Fresco, a landmarks commissioner in Santa Monica.
Video, which can be found on the website www.criticalpast.com, shows the Aerobile in flight.
Others, including designer and brush salesman R. Buckminster Fuller, also attempted to bring the flying car mainstream. All failed, in part as a result of the lack of investment in Depression-era America.
Still, the dream of the flying car lives on in popular culture — think “The Jetsons” — and, next year, on America’s roads.
A group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates based a company, Terrafugia, on the idea.
Terrafugia markets the Transition, a plane which can fold its wings up and drive on the road at speeds of 100 miles per hour.
It’s expected to hit the pavement in 2012, according to the company’s website.
“It’s an ever-enduring quest,” Cochrane said. “I don’t see anybody stopping.”