As World War II drew to a close, American general aviation manufacturers looked to a postwar future in which privately owned airplanes crisscrossed America, piloted as effortlessly as one would drive the family car.
But if many of the wartime-trained military pilots chose other major expenditures over a family airplane, it wasn’t for a lack of coaxing by the plane makers.
General Aviation News reader Roland Olm graciously sent a packet of postwar general aviation manufacturer brochures, and from perusing them it’s easy to catch the enthusiasm of those 1940s dreams all over again.
Aeronca promoted its line of aircraft along with tips on how any community could tailor-make an airport to serve the expected growing needs of the flying community.
Company officials waxed eloquent: “America’s coming parade of progress leads skyward. Far in the vanguard, answering America’s demand for fast, safe, economical transportation will be the personal airplane — the family plane — the plane that virtually everyone can own and fly.”
In addition to promoting its classic Champion and Chief fabric-covered taildraggers, Aeronca advertised the Chum, a license-built Ercoupe that only yielded two prototypes. The Champion, alias Champ and sometimes called the unflattering corruption of Aeronca as Airknocker, was an unabashed and effective effort to improve on the characteristics of the Piper Cub.
All that talk about an air-minded future for America seemed to bear fruit in 1946, as Aeronca Champion sales blossomed into the thousands. Between 1946 and 1947, production at Aeronca sometimes saw dozens of planes finished daily. But a postwar recession was around the bend, and in 1948 and 1949, job competition was a factor in the economic downturn that affected general aviation, along with other segments of the economy.
Meanwhile, Piper Aircraft made efforts to groom the postwar market for its classic J-3 Cub and derivatives. A 1944 Piper brochure, “How to Fly a Piper Cub,” anticipated postwar sales before the war was over.
According to company officials, learning to fly was “easy, practical, pleasant, and economical,” adding: “Piloting a plane is no longer an awe-inspiring art, reserved for a small group of supermen. It’s easy to fly! In fact, whether you are 16 or 60, if you are in average good health and are capable of exercising normal judgment, you can solo a Piper Cub with as little as eight hours of dual instruction!”
And ever since, flight instructors have lamented statements like that because each student’s progress is unique.
The Piper promotional brochure painted a glowing picture of the coming postwar air world: “In the coming air age, landing strips, small airports, and seaplane bases will dot the country. Then you will be able to fly with speed and ease to the many out-of-the-way towns that are most difficult to reach by other means of transportation.”
A growing network of highways in the postwar era robbed this prediction of some of its promise.
Cessna wasted no time scrambling for the postwar pilot customer. The aluminum fuselage Cessna 120 and 140 with side-by-side seating appealed to many. Wings were initially fabric covered. Production of more than 7,500 Cessna 120s and 140s lasted from 1946 to 1951.
The Cessnas brought a state-of-the-art look with their use of aluminum fuselages, flex steel landing gear, and later, single streamlined wing struts. The Cessna 120 did not have wing flaps standard. In 1946, a 120 could be purchased for $2,695. But in 1946 dollars, an average home cost $5,150.
Taylorcraft, builder of classic fabric-covered side-by-side taildraggers with control wheels instead of sticks, offered its Model BC 12 D in standard configuration for $2,595 at one point, and its Deluxe variant for $2,795.
A fire at the Taylorcraft factory in the autumn of 1946 curtailed any hope of a postwar boom for the company, and that iteration of Taylorcraft filed for bankruptcy.
If manufacturers like Aeronca targeted flight instruction as a market for many of their aircraft, the Culver company came into peacetime with the slogan, “It’s Culver for cross country.”
Chief designer at Culver was Al Mooney — yes, that name should sound familiar. Mooney and the design team at Culver enjoyed success during the war with optionally piloted target drones like the PQ-14.
Their successful efforts at simplifying flight control tasks for remote control drones gave birth to a new type of control system for the postwar Culver Model V. Called Simpli-Fly, the system used a dial in the cockpit to select the desired phase of flight, like takeoff, climb, cruise, or descent. This selection caused the aircraft to trim itself and set flaps. Al Mooney said the Model V’s adjustable flight control system made the elevator less important in flight operations. Possibly also coming from the radio-controlled drone background, the Model V was said to be able to land without flaring.
But evidently rank-and-file pilots did not take to all the flight control changes, and fewer than 100 of the Model V were built. When a proposed drone variant, the XPQ-15 was not ordered into quantity military production either, it spelled doom for Culver. After Culver, in 1948 Al and brother Art Mooney formed the company that still bears their name.
There’s more to explore for future columns in the optimistic postwar brochures from general aviation manufacturers — a mix of confidence and dreams that played out with varying degrees of success.