Airphibian
15 min read
This article first appeared in the January 1947 edition of Air Facts. As amazing as it might seem today, Leighton Collins believed back then that flying cars had arrived. He wrote in the headline to this article, “Put it down for keeps that a successful car-airplane is now an accomplished fact.” Seventy five years later, flying cars are still in the headlines but not in any garages or hangars. Still, the description of the Airphibian offers a fascinating look at the post-war general aviation boom.

To appreciate the Airphibian fully you need to know a little about the man behind it, Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. He is not a stranger to the readers of Air Facts. If you recall, there was an article entitled “The Aerostructor” in the February, 1941 issue. Fulton and his cousin, A. C. Travis, Jr., had come around with a neat and cleverly designed machine which they hoped would be to contact flying what the Link Trainer is to instrument flying, and an examination of the machine revealed that they had achieved a notable measure of success.

AF cover 1947

This article originally appeared in the January 1947 edition of Air Facts.

They had gotten on top of the Empire State Building and taken a picture all the way around the horizon. When you flew the Aerostructor you saw this picture projected ahead of you over the nose of a conventional side-by-side lightplane. The picture would move in response to the movement of your ailerons, elevator, and rudder, even down to the point of adverse yaw being worked in. You got all the visual realities of flying itself and in addition coordination could be taught with the machine.

Fulton had secured a small amount of data indicating clearly to him that with a few hours on this machine a person could solo in only a few hours more. Being able to use the machine without regard to wind or weather, day or night, at the airport or in a downtown sales room seemed highly advantageous in turning out private pilots in much less than the usual year it takes. The article evoked a reasonable amount of interest from operators throughout the country.

When the war came on Fulton and Travis tried to get the Army interested in the Aerostructor and a test was set up whereby a group of cadets would be given Aerostructor training first and their progress thereafter checked closely to see if it were better or faster than normal. The test turned out inconclusively, mainly because the flight instructors in charge, for rather obvious human reasons, were negative to the whole idea and managed to keep the machine pretty well out of whack most of the time.

Actually where the Army really went to sleep on the Aerostructor was not so much in failing to use it as a preliminary training device, but in failing to use it in the screening of cadets. They could have saved thousands upon thousands of hours of wasted training given washed out cadets by having an Aerostructor at induction centers. A competent instructor on the machine could have told the Army in a couple of days whether a candidate for pilot training could coordinate well enough to be able to learn as fast as he would have to to meet the Army schedule.

After the experience with the Army, Travis became a flight instructor. Undaunted, Fulton went to the Navy with a proposed elaboration of the Aerostructor. He proposed to the Navy that he would add to the Aerostructor’s complete visual effects of contact flying a second projector which would show an enemy fighter on the screen in front of the pilot, the enemy plane being under control of an instructor who would also “ride” in the machine with the student: object, fixed aerial gunnery training.

The Navy was skeptical but at least not unalert and told Fulton to go ahead and build them one to his own specifications. It took him almost a year to do it, working in an unheated hangar on a private estate in Connecticut. He finally got the machine down to Washington and set up. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. Fighter pilots just back from the Pacific said it was uncannily realistic. The Navy asked Fulton for fifty of the machines at once, by then christened the Gunairstructor. Naturally he gulped, as he’d been a year building one and had no facilities adequate for production at that rate.

Airphibian

The Airphibian was the product of a unique man: Robert Edison Fulton, Jr.

It is rather characteristic of the man that he operates from where he stands. He figured that even though Washington was noted mainly only for the manufacture of red tape, there still must be in a place of that size a good machine shop, a good wood working plant, and a good metal working concern. With the aid of the classified telephone directory he found three such places, got them to agree to wait for their pay until he got his, and soon the Gunairstructor was in production right in Washington, of all places and in wartime, with Fulton doing the assembling in a small rented plant. In all some 500 of these machines as well as a great many other devices were built by his company, Continental, Inc. for a gross of roughly $6,000,000.00. Along with the machine, Fulton has far more to do than the military would readily admit with the Who, When, Where system of fixed gunnery. That is, Who is it? Where do I aim? When do I shoot? There is no question that both the system and the machine worked, for the squadrons which had Gunairstructor training immediately showed up with first more holes in tow targets, and later with more enemy planes to their credit.

All this is doubtless a round about way of getting to the Airphibian, but it has a point: the Airphibian had to be and was built by an individual who has not only mechanical talent but a proclivity for taking the bull by the horns—and not turning loose.

II

Ordinarily it is not good policy to publicize new aircraft too soon. It is all too often unfair to both the industry and to the consumer. Too many that start never finish, many of those which finish are far from what they were supposed to be, and invariably they are all much longer getting into production than originally anticipated. But the Airphibian is a little different situation. You won’t be able to get one for a long time, but beyond that, don’t put the Airphibian down as a starter which won’t finish, or one which won’t do what it is supposed to do.

Airphibian prop

The first step in converting the Airphibian is to remove the propeller.

The way Fulton got around to this project grew out of the considerable amount of business travelling which he and members of his company did in their own planes during the war. They all had the same experience, namely, that an hour’s flight somewhere usually made sense enough but that you often spent another hour getting a taxi from the airport to where you really wanted to go. The upshot of the whole thing was that ten people, for the most part employees in Continental, Inc. decided that even if there were an airport every ten miles you’d on the average land five miles from where you wanted to go, and that regardless of what the rest of the world wanted they wanted an “airphibious” vehicle: one which would not only fly them to the town they wanted to go to but carry them right to the door which they wanted to reach. As a result, after V-J day, many meetings of the purchasers were held in which the major details were thrashed out: high wing or low, three wheel gear or four, tractor or pusher, and so on. All pilots, the group represented a diversity of occupations: one was an aeronautical engineer, another a lawyer, another an electronics engineer, one an ex-military pilot, one a salesman, one a sportswoman, and so on down to Fulton, who had studied architecture at Harvard and abroad. Finally after much discussion and voting, contracts were drawn up for the purchase of ten custom built Airphibians according to the specifications agreed upon. It is an interesting sidelight on the Airphibian that one of Fulton’s forebears saw what a fine thing a steam engine was and what a fine thing a boat was and what an even finer thing a steamboat would be.

The first Airphibian has been finished and will shortly be submitted to CAA for flight tests. As soon as the ATC is obtained then the other nine will be built. The company is not at this time accepting orders for deliveries after that as the time required to clear the CAA and build the nine is not yet determinable. Meanwhile they have purchased 15 acres on the Danbury, Connecticut airport for expansion of the “cornerstone” plant they have built. It is phibious too, in a way. The east wall is bolted on and is consequently readily detachable. The plant will move to the east in orderly 40’ extensions as the business develops.

III

At this time Continental, Inc. is not inclined to release more than a bare minimum of technical details. You can see why. They’ve worked a year producing the machine and there’s no use cutting down at this point on the year’s start which they have gained.

All that can be said now is that the workmanship on the machine is most excellent, that they have apparently thought of everything, and that the clear headed and fresh approach to even the obvious engineering problems is nothing short of spectacular.

All in all, the machine will take you by surprise in many ways. Fulton said there one day that while he was not carrying any passengers he would be glad to make a demonstration flight. Going back into the shop, the car was sitting on one side of the room and the wing-fuselage assembly on the other. They rolled the car out the door, then the wings, and started pushing the latter up towards the car. After just a little wiggling as the units telescoped, they reached inside behind the seat and pulled a couple of levers fitted with automatic locks. Then they cranked up the two small wheels which come down from the lift struts and finally the tailwheel was cranked back up into normal position with a small crank on the top rear part of the fuselage. Putting the propeller on was a matter of only a minute or two and the spinner was locked on with the ignition key. About that time Fulton got in, stepped on the starter and taxied off – all in no more than five minutes from the time the car was first rolled out.

Disassembly

Moving to car mode was accomplished in under 10 minutes.

The engine is muffled to the same exhaust noise level as an automobile, which is zero. The ground-adjustable propeller, being three-bladed, has lower tip speeds than usual and as the ship taxied out it was fantastically quiet. The take-off run looked like it was about 500’ into a 10-mile wind with no apparent effort to haul it off. A guess at the take-off speed is 55. The climb looked like a good 600 f.p.m. and as the ship went by there was just sort of a swish rather than the usual propeller and exhaust racket. With a big expensive CAA project on to devise a quieter airplane, here is one already flying!

In the air the ship looks like most any other high-wing you see except for the extra pair of wheels. It seems to have the same speed as a Stinson 150, which should be in the cards as it has about the same weight, wing area, and power and is just as clean.

Having flown the ship only once before, Fulton made a power approach, touched down slightly rear wheels first and at that point the nose came on down and the front wheels went on the runway. In a later landing with some drift it obviously had the stability of a tricycle gear and on some fast taxying tests they have made sharp turns at quite high speed without having it even start to put a wingtip down.

Taxying back over to the factory, Fulton shut off the engine, unlocked the prop spinner, gave the built-in wrench a twirl, took the prop back and put it on the side of the fuselage, cranked the three fuselage wheels down until they were carrying a little weight, unlocked and flipped the levers inside and gave the airplane part a shove. He then pulled up his one-man top, got in, stepped on the starter, gave a couple of toots on the horn, and drove off.

There’s no question about it. He has a machine which you can land and by yourself and with your bare hands get on the highway in a matter of six or seven minutes at the most. Coming back to the airport you can put it together by yourself in the same length of time and take-off in an airplane which from the sidelines definitely seems to have conventional handling characteristics and performance.

The car, according to Fulton, doesn’t ride like a Cadillac, but is quite a number of cuts above a Jeep. It weighs around 1100 pounds, and has a recommended top speed of 45 m.p.h.

They don’t say how they get the power to the wheels, whether it is front or rear wheel drive, how the engine is cooled on the ground, or exactly what power the flat-six air-cooled engine is. They do say that you drive it on the highway with the same controls with which you fly it in the air.

Airphibian car

Hardly a Cadillac, but it has four wheels.

If you have a flat there’s a canvas sack under each seat cushion which contains an inflated spare. By redesigning the usual aircraft hub assembly slightly they have gotten a tire change down to a matter of six minutes. The canvas sack takes care of any mud on the flat tire. The gas is in the rear of the car, and the baggage goes on the shelf behind the seat.

As purely a blind guess, the car does not have a clutch, transmission, or differential, but simply a hydraulic drive of some kind with only one speed forward. The car will also back up. So far it has been driven some 5,000 miles on Connecticut back-roads, on both rough and soft ground, and they feel that it is both dependable and rugged. Gas mileage on the road is about 25 miles per gallon.

IV

To pick up a dropped stitch, the reason for presenting the Airphibian now rather than after an ATC is to give a helping hand to a most worthy venture. Anything which proposes a change in the habits or accustomed thinking of people meets a certain amount of resistance. People cling to the status quo instinctively. It is therefore well to try to stimulate at even this early date the acceptance of the airphibious idea.

A successful airphibious vehicle is the biggest thing in years in private flying because it strikes with real effectiveness at the inflexibility of the conventional airplane. If you fly into some resort area for a week or a week-end, you have a car while there. If you fly anywhere on business you won’t ever call a taxi because the Airphibian is so easy to take apart and put together again that you’ll have no hesitancy in doing it, even if you only drive a mile. If it should develop that the wing units are spread about the country on a rental basis then that solves a lot of the weather problem in private flying. When it gets really stinko you’ll get on the highway and pick up wings again when you can see where you’re going.

Saleswise this machine will make it possible to take the mountain to Mohammet. From downtown sales quarters the operator will pick up the prospect at his door, let him drive it to the airport, fly it, and then drive back to his door. It will surely be an easy airplane to fly, as stall and spin resistant as a Stinson, and with the landing ease of any level-landing gear plus gear stability. The wing has flaps for shorter take-offs and steeper approaches if they are needed.

All in all, the Airphibian invites a major change in everything we do with small airplanes – where we go, what we will do when we get there, how we sell them, who we sell them to. It is the brightest spot on the horizon of private flying to-day, for here there is the possibility of really sustained mass production and the lower prices which come from mass production. It tips the scales to the plus side on the question of utility. Private flying hasn’t done too bad existing on what is essentially little more than the sheer joy of flying. Now we can have that and real usefulness too!

6 replies
  1. Jim Mauro
    Jim Mauro says:

    I rode and flew in the Airphibian in the 1950’s when the Taylorcraft company had it on display to the Army at Fort Rucker. My Dad was involved with Taylorcraft.
    Thanks for the website and the AirFacts article. It’s great to know more of the story.

    Reply
  2. Marty Miller
    Marty Miller says:

    There is a picture of one “driving” on New York’s Grand Central Parkway hanging in a Pizza shop in Astoria!

    Reply
  3. Tord Eriksson
    Tord Eriksson says:

    What happened to it? Was that just the single one built, or what?!

    Not that it would have a chance in (an unmentionable, very warm, place) today, with everything from crash tests to EPA rules, even if it got the nod from FAA. There is some today who think they’ve solved the puzzle, but they are extremely costly and not much of a workhorse.

    Reply

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