Flying Cars: The True Story

Flying Cars: The True Story

by Andrew Glass


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Humans have always wanted to fly. As soon as there were planes and cars, many people saw a combination as the next step for personal transportation, and visionary engineers and inventors did their best to make the flying car (or the roadable plane) a reality. This book is a breezy account of hybrid vehicles and their creators, and of the intense drive that kept bringing inventors back to the drawing board despite repeated failures and the dictates of common sense. Illustrated with archival photos, this entertaining survey takes readers back as far as Icarus and forward into the present day, with a look toward the future. Includes author's note, source notes, bibliography, index. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618984824
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 591,574
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 11.10(h) x 0.70(d)
Lexile: 1340L (what's this?)
Age Range: 10 - 12 Years

About the Author

Andrew Glass has written several books for children and has illustrated many. He lives in New York City with his wife and their daughter.

Read an Excerpt



Cars fly every day — in fantasy. They soar by pure magic, like the Weasley family car in the Harry Potter series, or by sprouting wings, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Some use high-tech gadgetry, allowing well-equipped heroes like James Bond and Batman to make incredible cliffhanger escapes.

But visionary engineers and inventors haven't just imagined flying cars. Some actually built them ... and then drove them up into the sky.

On the night of September 4, 1882, inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931) turned on the lights. His generator on Pearl Street produced enough electricity to light up four hundred light bulbs in eighty homes in New York City, thus ushering in an era of modern technomagic. The early years of the twentieth century witnessed a multitude of astonishing technological advances: wireless radio communication ... recorded sound and moving pictures ... horseless carriages that were powered instead by steam, electricity, or gasoline ... and, most remarkable of all, flying machines. When the first daring birdmen took to the air aboard their heavier-than-air flying machines, they accomplished what nearly everyone — including scientists — had deemed to be impossible, a fantasy.

Ancient-world storytellers told the tale of an inventor named Daedalus,who constructed wings out of feathers and wax for himself and his son, Icarus. They strapped the homemade wings to their backs and leaped from a cliff. Young Icarus foolishly soared too close to the sun. The wax melted, and the boy plummeted into the sea. Daedalus flapped sadly off to freedom, proving that his artificial wing design was entirely functional, at least mythologically speaking.

Inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) studied birds in flight. He made many analytical drawings of their wings and then designed a human-powered flying machine. He also came up with the idea for a car propelled by a tightly wound spring. Although Leonardo lacked an actual engine to power his devices, his designs were not mythological tall tales; they were real plans — concepts that anticipated transportation technologies hundreds of years in the future.

Midway through the nineteenth century, a French sea captain, Jean Marie Le Bris (1817–1872), was inspired by the flight of the albatross, a large seabird. Like da Vinci, he made meticulous studies of how the bird's aerodynamic shape aids its movement through the air. Then, using his knowledge of ship design, Le Bris stretched cloth over wood and constructed a glider with a 50-foot wingspan. He designed pedals to raise and lower the glider's tail, and hand levers to adjust the angle of the wings. He wanted to simulate the subtle interaction between wings and air that controlled the direction of the albatross's flight and gave the bird its ability to stay aloft so effortlessly. He also built a horse-drawn cart for carrying and launching his mechanical bird, and in 1857 he applied for a patent for an artificial albatross or aerial car.

Eyewitness accounts of the aerial car's trial run described how Le Bris instructed his driver to race the cart along a road while heading directly into the wind. Atop the cart was the Albatross, courageously piloted by Captain Le Bris himself. It caught a 10-knot breeze and soared majestically some 300 feet into the air — along with the unfortunate cart driver, who'd become snagged in a restraining rope and was dangling behind. The glider itself and the unlucky driver sustained only minor damage on landing.

Le Bris rebuilt the Albatross, but further attempts to launch it ended badly. Finally the aerial car was demolished during a disastrous landing that also broke the inventor's leg. This concluded Le Bris's wheels-to-wings adventure. However, his aerial car was the first aircraft to be piloted to a higher altitude than its point of departure, and also the first flying machine to be photographed.



When he was a boy, Gustav Albin Weisskopf (1874–1927) fabricated a pair of wings and leaped from the roof of his grandparents' house in Ansbach, Germany. He wanted to see if he would fly. He didn't. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a machinist and learned how to build engines. He left Germany in the late 1880s, and eventually he arrived in America an experienced sailor and machinist. He was hired by a Harvard professor as the chief mechanic in charge of testing experimental kites, and he also constructed gliders for the Boston Aeronautical Society, following well-established designs. By 1897, he'd successfully made short flights.

In New York City he built and flew kites engineered to carry a man's weight. Scientific kite flying, as it was called, was cutting-edge aviation technology at the time.

In Buffalo, New York, he changed his name to Gustave Whitehead so he would sound more American. He called himself Gus and began referring to himself as an aeronaut. From Buffalo he moved to Pittsburgh and then on to Baltimore, taking employment as a factory worker, a coal miner, and a skilled repairman. He moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he found work as a night watchman. In each city he resolutely continued his research into manned flight, and he constructed and publicly demonstrated his airships. He was certain that the right motor would make powered flight possible, so he worked to perfect his engines, making them smaller and lighter. In Pittsburgh he created a glider equipped with a steam engine of his own design. A friend and collaborator later swore that they flew a steam-powered airship into a brick building, resulting in a fiery crash — which was followed by a vigorous request from the Pittsburgh police that they cease their dubious experiments or leave town. According to Whitehead, the flight was "more or less successful." Convinced that some form of privately owned flying vehicle would one day become a part of daily life, Whitehead began formulating plans to build a passenger airship that could be adapted for driving along the road to a public park, field, or open meadow for taking off. He believed that airships needed to be drivable, like the motorized carriages of his day, and also function in the water if they were to efficiently transport aeronauts like himself to their destinations.

In a shed behind his house on Pine Street in Bridgeport, Whitehead re-engineered a conventional bird-shaped glider that he'd built in New York. He called it the Condor 21, after the large birds he'd watched soaring effortlessly off the coast of South America. With its boat-shaped gondola, where the pilot could sit or stand while operating the control stick, his airship resembled the Albatross glider of Captain Le Bris, another experienced sailor. But the two-passenger vehicle didn't need a horse for locomotion. Whitehead had designed and built two engines powered by a series of rapid gas explosions. The smaller engine produced enough piston pressure to provide 10 horsepower to the front wheels for driving. The larger 20-horsepower engine added more power for taking off and to spin two propellers, which were designed to counter-rotate for stability in the air. The Condor's 36-foot wings, made of bamboo poles covered with canvas, could be folded into nine segments and stored against the cabin. A flat fan-shaped tail controlled the ascent and descent of the Condor in flight.

Just after midnight on August 14, 1901, Gustave Whitehead, with an assistant aboard, slowly drove his 16-foot-long flying automobile, its wings neatly folded, along Pine Street in Bridgeport. The entire contraption rode on four small wooden wheels. Reaching a paved stretch of road, they raced off at an estimated 20 to 30 miles per hour. A second assistant and a reporter from the Bridgeport Herald kept up as best they could on bicycles. Later, in the first light of dawn, both engines were tested and every structural joint and rod examined. By early morning they had succeeded in making an unmanned trial flight. According to one account, a milkman who'd stopped in the road nearly lost control of his startled horse when the Condor's outstretched wings flapped in the breeze.

Whitehead took his place in the gondola and opened the throttle of the ground engine. The vehicle motored along for a hundred yards, picking up speed, and then he flipped the lever, adding the ground engine's power to that of the more powerful propeller engine. The same lever caused the wing canvas to spring taut. Instantly, the bow lifted and the airship shot up in the air like a kite, powered by its twin propellers. The Condor reportedly chugged along in a straight line fifty feet above the ground until Whitehead realized that he was not going to clear the stand of chestnut trees that lay ahead. He may have tried altering the speed of the individual propellers to control the airship in flight, or maybe he tried to bend the wings with the control stick, which was attached to guide wires. In any event, dramatically shifting his weight to one side at the last moment caused the Condor to veer from its course, banking around the danger. After motoring through the air for more than a mile, he shut down the engines and landed the Condor lightly on its four wooden wheels. "That was the happiest moment of my life, for I had demonstrated that the machine I have worked on for so many years would do what I claimed for it. It was a grand sensation to be flying through the air. There is nothing like it."

The August 18, 1901, edition of the Bridgeport Herald carried a full-page article stating that Gus Whitehead's Condor had flown near Bridgeport, Connecticut. Newspapers all over America and around the world picked up the story of his achievement in a "flying automobile."

Another Condor — with a foldable tail, rear-wheel steering, improved engines, and silk-covered wings over ribs made of steel and aluminum tubing — was reported to have made even longer flights. But in spite of its notable success as a flying machine, it proved difficult to control in high winds. Whitehead abandoned experimenting with "roadable" airships to pursue the more reliable business of supplying his efficient, lightweight motors to other pioneering aviators.

Some flight historians have contested Whitehead's claim (and that of his supporters) that his flying automobile preceded the Wright brothers into the air by more than two years. They remain unconvinced that the Condor ever got off the ground. Others have acknowledged Whitehead's flight as history's first manned, powered, controlled, sustained flight in a heavier-than-air craft.

Despite controversy, the chronicle of Gustave Whitehead's flying automobile marks a possibility that arose in the early years of the twentieth century. Instead of branching into two completely separate machines, one for driving and one for flying, motorized travel might have evolved into a personal transportation machine with wings for flying and wheels for driving. However, the Wright brothers' Flyer (which didn't even have wheels for takeoff, let alone drivability) was designed with greater potential for controlled flight than the Condor and proved more suitable for both commercial and military purposes. So instead of being embraced from the start, the flying car became something like a recurring dream, a technological ideal to be pursued and promoted by a few determined inventors in the new century.

On June 26, 2013, Connecticut governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a measure declaring that Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, Connecticut, flew a flying automobile in 1901, more than two years before Orville Wright claimed to have successfully motored from atop a sand dune at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.



In 1903, Trajan (also spelled Traian) Vuia (1872–1950), a young Romanian lawyer from a small village in Transylvania, submitted a proposal to the Science Academy of Paris announcing his intention to construct an airplane-automobile.

The Science Academy's Special Commission on Aeronautics called Vuia's proposal ("Projet d'Aéroplaneautomobile") unrealistic. "The problem of flight with a machine weighing more than air cannot be solved," the commission stated. "It is only a dream." In October, seemingly unaffected by the reports of Whitehead's success, an article in the New York Times declared, "The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to 10 million years."

Over the winter of 1902, Vuia had constructed a simple automobile of tubular steel with a front-mounted propeller. Despite the prevailing view — based on glider experiments — that any flying machine required at least a double-wing (biplane) design, the Vuia 1 had only a single wing. It measured 8.70 meters (28.5 feet). In defense of his design (that is, of one wing on each side), Vuia said simply, "I have never seen a bird with more than two wings."

By December 1905, Vuia had begun testing his automobile by careening around an isolated plain called Montesson, near Paris. Adding the wings transformed the vehicle into what he called his airplane-automobile. He hoped his kerosene-powered 20-horsepower engine would create enough propulsion for takeoff without any of the external assistance needed for previous flights, such as the wheeled cart of Captain Le Bris or the sloping wooden track used by the Wright brothers. Successful independent takeoff and landing would prove that a hybrid personal transportation machine operated by a lone pilot/driver was not only possible but feasible. But Vuia remained earthbound until he felt confident driving at 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour).

Finally, on March 19, 1906, at three o'clock in the afternoon, before an audience of local gentry, fellow inventors, and journalists, Vuia drove his airplane-automobile about 50 meters (164 feet), ascended into the air to a height of about 1 meter (3.28 feet), and powered ahead for 12 meters (39.5 feet) before the engine fizzled, which caused the propeller to stop turning. The aéroplane-automobile tilted to the left and landed hard, damaging the left front wheel. But Vuia, unhurt, considered it a triumph. It wasn't a long flight, nor had the vehicle attained an impressive altitude, but Vuia was publicly acknowledged to have succeeded in driving, taking off, flying, and landing again in a fully functional airplane-automobile. No one doubted that the machine had accomplished what its inventor had set out to do. It was no fantasy — it was reality. A New York Herald headline announced, "Vuia Airplane Makes a Successful Flight."

But was the vehicle an airplane, as the New York Herald headline suggested, or a flying car, as its name suggested? Though it looked like a horseless carriage with wings, its wheeled frame could also be considered the revolutionary undercarriage for a primitive airplane. LAèrophile, the official journal of L'Aero-Club de France, seems to have agreed with the Herald. After witnessing a preliminary trial, a columnist declared that Mr. Vuia was the first person in France to have attempted, with a machine able to carry a man, the direct takeoff of an airplane.

The aéroplane-automobile's propeller might have given people the idea that it was indeed meant to be an airplane, since a car driven by whirling propeller blades would, at the very least, create a havoc of flying hats and umbrellas, litter, and dust along the boulevard, and likely put pedestrians at serious risk. However, in spite of the obvious disadvantages and safety hazards, there weren't any legal restrictions against a propeller- driven car. (Vuia's airplane-automobile wasn't the only one of its kind. In 1922, Marcel Leyat, a French aircraft builder, attempted to market the Helica. Though derived from the new airplane technology, the Helica was designed as a propeller-driven automobile, not a flying machine.)

The aéroplane-automobile's four rubber tires weren't standard equipment on experimental flying machines in those days, and neither were the folding wings on the redesigned Vuia 2. Both innovations suggest that the inventor intended to build a new type of transportation machine, one that would function as a practical flying machine and also as an automobile. One published authority puts the Vuia's squarely in the flying car category, at the top of his chronology: "1906 Trajan Vuia tests flying auto near Paris, France." Another aircraft historian reports having gathered substantive proof, including the inventor's notes to that effect, that Vuia's airplane-automobile was unequivocally meant as a flying car.

In 1906, flying machines and driving machines were not yet understood to be separate transportation technologies. But the difficulty of actually constructing a flying/driving vehicle led most pioneering aeronautical engineers to abandon the idea of a unified machine and to pursue the airplane as a separate mechanical entity with its own aerodynamic requirements. Rugged horseless carriages were left to evolve into bulky, comfortable passenger cars without wings.


Excerpted from "Flying Cars"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Andrew Glass.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
First, the Dream,
Gustave Whitehead's Condor,
Trajan Vuia's Aéroplane-Automobile,
Glenn Curtiss's Autoplane,
Felix Longobardi's Combination Vehicle,
Henry Ford's Flying Flivver,
Waldo Waterman's Arrowbile,
Harold Pitcairn's Autogyro,
Joseph Gwinn's Aircar,
Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Omnidirectional Human,
William Bushnell Stout's Skycar,
Theodore P. Hall's Convaircar,
Robert Fulton's Airphibian,
Daniel Zuck's Plane-Mobile,
Moulton B. Taylor's Aerocar,
Into the Future,
Author's Note,
Source Notes,
Picture Credits,
About the Author,

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