The Waterman Aerobile on display at the Smithsonian.

In 1934, the Bureau of Air Commerce recognized the Waterman Arrowplane as one of two award-winning designs for its flivver (light, easy-to-fly, affordable) aircraft competition. The Waterman Aerobile #6 is the improved version of the design. The Arrowplane was initially designed in response to U. S. Bureau of Air Commerce Chief Eugene Vidal’s initiative AB-205 for “everyman’s safe, low-cost, airplane.” The target price of $700 for a flivver aircraft was widely ridiculed as too low, even at depression prices, because of practical engine and manufacturing costs, but Vidal found significant general interest in the concept.  (Pics)

In 1911, pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss commented to Waldo Waterman of Santa Monica, California, about how nice it would be to drive his amphibian aircraft away from the landing field or water and thus inspired Waterman to begin work on tailless roadable airplane. In 1932, Waterman designed and test flew a Kinner-powered tailless low-wing pusher that was nicknamed “Whatsit” by bystanders who were puzzled by the strange configuration of the airplane. The “Whatsit,” also in the Museum’s collection, was the test bed that led to the Arrowplane.

In response to the safe airplane competition, Mr. Waterman sought to adapt the “Whatsit” design to meet those requirements. The resulting prototype “Arrowplane” was a much more stable two-place, high-wing tailless cabin monoplane equipped with a tricycle landing gear. Flight control was provided by wing mounted elevons and wing tip mounted multi function rudders. Outboard deflection of the rudders provided a speed brake function. To fulfill Vidal’s easy-to-fly requirements, a two control. system was installed. This essentially made the airplane stall and spin-proof. Pitch was controlled by the fore and aft movement of the control column and a turn of the control wheel resulted in a perfectly coordinated banked turn. The airplane was powered by a four-cylinder, 95 HP Menasco C-4 air-cooled inline engine mounted in a pusher configuration in the rear of the passenger/crew nacelle. Automobile style doors allowed entry into the side-by-side passenger cabin. While the Arrowplane was not roadable, it was a major advance toward achieving Waterman’s ultimate goal of a roadable airplane.


The Bureau of Air Commerce’s recognition of the Arrowplane prompted Waterman to form the Waterman Arrowplane Corporation in Santa Monica, California, and develop a roadable version of the aircraft known as the Arrowbile. This idea required the development of a transmission drive system that would operate the propeller for flight and the rear wheels for ground operation. The aircraft was required to meet the certification criteria for both the Bureau of Air Commerce and the state motor vehicle departments. Waterman used as many standard auto components as possible, including Studebaker radiator, interior knobs and parts, hood grill, starter, generator, battery, and engine, Ford radiator grill and gear reduction assembly, Austin steering wheel, and Willys headlight, internal differential gears, and wheel brakes. The only expensive aircraft quality instruments used were the magnetic compass, air speed indicator, and altimeter. The only device used for flight control was a wheel yoke that was suspended from the cabin ceiling in front of the pilot. This same wheel was also used to turn the nose wheel for steering during ground operation. The wheel brakes, ground accelerator pedal and a foot button starter switch were the only controls on the floor. To convert for ground operation, the two wings were separately detached by first removing the pins from the lower wing strut attach points and then swinging the struts outboard to be used as a stand. Operation of the safety release on the cabin ceiling extracted the tapered pins retaining the spars and controls connections. The propeller was then disengaged and the ground drive transmission engaged. You could then drive the vehicle to your destination and upon your return the procedure was reversed for it to fly again.

waterman 2

Waterman flew the first test flight of the Arrowbile on February 21, 1937, and found the aircraft easy to fly and virtually spin and stall proof. However, its price of $3,000 was considerably more than the $700 airplane envisioned by Vidal. The craft was registered as a motorcycle in California. The Studebaker Company, looking to advertise its engines, bought the company and ordered the first five aircraft. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 were completed and given restricted certificates for flight from Santa Monica to Cleveland, Ohio, in September 1937 to attend the National Air Races. Although No. 1 was severely damaged during a forced landing in Arizona, No. 2 and No. 3 performed impressive daily demonstrations. In the spring of 1938, Waterman became ill and the company had to close its doors. In 1940, healthy again and working with the Civilian Pilot Training Program, Waterman purchased the number 4 aircraft and an engine from Studebaker and continued his research. William Stout, who built the Stout Sky Car and worked with Consolidated Vultee, showed interest in the project and brought the remaining aircraft to Detroit for more research, but Consolidated’s interest waned after World War II ended.

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In the late 1940s Waterman retrieved as many parts of the incomplete Arrowbile # 6 as he could find and continued his work. His improved postwar version had a swept wing tailless pusher configuration with its tricycle landing gear. Now called Aerobile #6, the larger fuselage section carried a pilot forward and two passengers on a bench seat in the back and the aircraft had a postwar Franklin-built Tucker automobile engine. Waterman redesigned the wing assembly so that it could be removed as one assembly rather than the two separate wings of the Arrowbile. The conversion procedure was essentially the same as described for the Arrowbile, however the “Three Minute Conversion” claims of the sales brochures were optimistic at best. The fuselage was a welded steel tube structure covered with sheet aluminum panels. The wings were of metal construction with wooden spars and the wingtip mounted fins and rudders were of welded steel tubing. All wing surfaces were fabric-covered. The aircraft had a single right-side door, a standard instrument panel, and the control wheel yoke was mounted on the floor.

Finally, in 1957, the aircraft was given registration number N-54P in the experimental category. By then the market for such an aircraft had vanished. In his long and distinguished aviation career Waldo Waterman had contributed many ideas to the design of a safe, easy-to fly aircraft. The Museum’s Stearman-Hammond, Waterman Aerobile, Stout Sky Car, and Erco Ercoupe stand as testaments to the flivver aircraft movement of the 1930s. Waterman restored Aerobile No. 6, in “Buick blue” and white, and donated it to NASM on March 24, 1961.

Via Smithsonian

History of the Flying Car – Part Two

History of the Flying Car – Part Four