Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Waldo Waterman's Whatsit

This has got to be one of the most creative names of an aircraft: people showing up to see Waldo Waterman's novel flying wing design, they'd invariably ask "What is it?" Whether he was intrigued or annoyed with the constant question isn't clear, but what is know is that Waterman named the plane the Whatsit.

Original Caption: "A New-Type Plane Makes Debut": Because everyone who has
seen it fly has gasped, "What is it?", Waldo D. Waterman, ex-Air Mail pilot and
aeronatuical veteran of Santa Monica, California, named his unique new flying
wing plane just that, "Whatsit". The novel two passenger tailess craft, which
travels more than one hundred miles an hour, powered with a small radial air
cooled engine, appears to be one answer to America's need for a low priced,
simply and economically constructed everyman's flivver plane. Photo shows
Waldo D. Waterman in cockpit of his new plane at the Grand Central Air
Terminal, Glendale. 2/17/34
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, two men, Jack Northrop and Waldo Waterman, were independently working on the concept of a flying wing aircraft design within but a few miles of each other. While Northrop was doing his work at Burbank, Waterman set up shop nearby at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport, what is today known as the Van Nuys Airport.

The two designers had very different motives for pursuing such a radical design: Waterman thought that the configuration held promise for a "flivver", a small every-man's airplane, like a car for the sky, and just as easy to operate. Jack was driven by the desire to refine aircraft design to achieve the lowest possible drag, and he saw a tailless wing as the ultimate solution to that problem. Northrop's design first flew in 1928 (we'll be covering that in a future post), and he went on to fame. Waterman's wing flew in 1932, and though his designs evolved over the next few years, he was never able to come up with the breakthrough design that would provide him with fame and the common man with an airplane that would be as ubiquitous as the automobile.

Waterman had worked in various locations around Southern California for years. In 1910, while based at North Island, San Diego, he designed a variation on a Curtiss pusher that included an innovation where a pull of a lever folded the planes wheels out of the way so that it could land on its skids, making it quite possibly the first retractible landing gear in aviation history.

After WWI, Waterman found work in Glendale custom-building first a JN-4 Jenny and then a Packard-LaPere for millionare L. C. Brand. While there was a huge war surplus of hastily-assembled Jennys available on the market, Waterman found a small niche for customized and precision-built - and thus quite a bit more expensive - aircraft. From these, he acquired a reputation for producing aircraft that were highly reliable.

Construction on the Whatsit, NX12272, started in 1929 and included a number of notable design innovations, including the first documented use of "elevons" for both roll and pitch control. A trim plane, which was adjustable on the ground, protruded on short booms in front of the nose. The wings featured a 15 degree sweep, and the tips supported small rudders. Unlike most planes of the era (but just like Northrop's AE-1 wing), the Whatsit used tricycle landing gear complete with a steerable nose wheel.

Work on the aircraft was completed in May, 1932, and Waterman commenced taxi tests at LA Metropolitan. After several abortive flight attempts which ended in several minor incidents with the aircraft, Waterman finally got the plane airborne in July, although he quickly found that it was somewhat unstable in pitch. This was due to the close-coupled vertical relationship between the pusher engine's thrust line and the wing's center of pressure (this relationship affects an aircraft's longitudinal static stability, and while it is less noticable in traditional fuselage/tail aircraft designs, it is especially critical in tailless swept flying wing designs; even modern designs struggle with such problems, and the complex relationships of center of pressure and thrust line, as well as pitch control moment led to the crash of the Lockheed RQ-3 Dark Star, as well as pitch instability issues with Boeing's Phantom Ray, which only flew twice before being relegated to storage).

In October 1932, the aircraft was almost destroyed in an landing accident (Waterman wasn't flying at the time). Discouraged, Waterman shelved the project and took a job as an airmail pilot for Transcontinental & Western Airlines. Then, in late 1933, when the US Bureau of Air Commerce's director Eugene Vidal initiated a competition to encourage designers to come up with safe, reliable and inexpensive aircraft that the average person could fly, essentially Model-Ts of the air. Vidal stated, "that if some manufacturer could produce a foolproof airplane in large quantities and market it at a low figure, a new phase of the aircraft industry could be developed"

Waterman realized that a number of aspects of the Whatsit design fit the requirements of the Bureau's challenge, and so flight testing resumed in Feburary 1934, with only minor modifications. At some point, he landed at Grand Central where this photo was shot (the Whatsit was powered by a Kinner radial engine, and Kinner was based at Glendale). He even received mention in the May 1934 issue of Popular Science. 

However, the pitch instability remained, and it quickly became apparent that such a sensitive aircraft was not consistent with what was needed for a novice pilot. Thus, Waterman completely redesigned the plane, adapting a high-wing design (a change that solved the pitch stability problem by putting the wing's center of pressure more in line with the engine's line of thrust), which became the Arrowplane, produced under a the auspices of the newly incorprated Waterman Arrowplane Corp.

Ultimately, out of the 30 entrants in the Bureau's contest in 1935, the Arrowplane was one of only two that took prizes (depending on the source of information, either a Pitcairn AC-35 autogyro or a Hammond Y was the other prize winner). Later, the Arrowplane was refined into the Arrowbile, and then the Aerobile. However, despite the Bureau's romantic visions of the future direction of the aviation industry, neither of these...or any other "flivver", for that matter...made it into large-scale production. WWII and other modern realities pretty much killed the idea of a flying car in every garage. Waterman himself passed away in 1976, in relative obscurity.

The Whatsit, surprisingly, has survived in the collection of the Smithonian's Air and Space Museum, and what's left of it can be seen here.

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