AKRON, Ohio — The concept had sky-high potential. Unfortunately, it went over like a lead balloon.
In the mid-1950s, Goodyear Aircraft Corp. of Akron, Ohio, designed, developed and produced an experimental airplane that could fold up into a bundle and fit in the trunk of an automobile.
The Inflatoplane was an aeronautical oddity made of rubberized nylon fabric that pumped up like a tire. Within 10 minutes of unloading, the lightweight aircraft was filled with air and ready to fly.
Goodyear engineers heralded the contraption, which maintained its shape by internal air pressure, as the first of its kind in the United States.
“Named the Inflatoplane, the new Goodyear aircraft plane, developed under joint Army-Navy auspices, can be flown from a small field and attain speeds that will satisfy anyone wishing to avoid the bumper-to-bumper Sunday afternoon traffic,” the company boasted.
The prototype was a one-person craft 19.7 feet long with a wingspan of 22 feet and an empty weight of 205 pounds (or 329 pounds with its 20-gallon gas tank full).
With the pilot seated in the front, the Inflatoplane resembled a glider — albeit one composed of mattress stuffing. The fuselage, tail and cockpit were made with two walls of rubberized fabric connected by nylon threads.
A two-cycle, 40-horsepower motor was mounted above and behind the wing. The only other metal parts were a few instruments, control cables and a support connecting the wheels and pilot’s seat to the fuselage.
Goodyear said the airplane could carry a 200-pound man up to 72 mph at a ceiling of 10,300 feet, and required a clearing about the size of a football field to take off or land.
Akron test pilot Richard Ulm, 36, was the first to put the Inflatoplane through its paces in 1956 at Wingfoot Lake in Suffield Township, Ohio.
“Most unusual plane I ever flew,” he told reporters afterward.
He said it provided “a cushy ride” that softened the usual bumps when taxiing for a takeoff.
“The plane flies much the same as any light plane,” he said. “By being seated at the front, however, I felt oddly like a glider pilot.”
The Inflatoplane instantly caught the attention of the national media, earning such colorful nicknames as “The Flying Mattress,” “The Flying Inner Tube,” “Flying Dumbo,” “The Pocket Airplane” and “Bag O’ Wind.” Articles appeared in Newsweek, Life, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Flying and Aviation Week.
On ABC radio, Paul Harvey commented: “What’s new? Goodyear Aircraft has an airplane you can fold up and put away in the truck of your car; well, almost. The thing inflates with a tire pump, looks like a glider, flies like an airplane.”
On CBS radio, Arthur Godfrey exclaimed: “Gee, it would be wonderful! I’ve got to try that one, boy.”
The U.S. military was quite interested in the inflatable airplane for surveillance, aerial reconnaissance and military rescues.
Goodyear believed the airplane could be packaged in a wing pod, dropped from a wing rack, shoved out a cargo hatch or parachuted to stranded pilots in enemy territory.
Within 10 minutes, the pilots could rescue themselves and fly to safety.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Earle E. Partridge, commander of the North American Air Defense Command, and Brig. Gen. Robert K. Taylor III, also of NORAD, inspected the airplane in person in Akron.
Development engineers J. Thomas Blair, Maurice Landford, John Phillips, Bruce Bain and Ken Olinger began to teach one-week Inflatoplane classes to military personnel at Wingfoot Lake.
Goodyear streamlined the design over the years, enclosing the cockpit, simplifying the controls and mounting the engine to the top of the wing instead of the fuselage.
In 1957, the company introduced a heavier, two-seat Inflatoplane that could reach 16,000 feet at 80 mph. Engineers also tested a water-ski attachment on Wingfoot Lake.
“Success of the operation leads us to believe that takeoff and landing operations on snow, mud and other slick surfaces could be negotiated by the Inflatoplane without difficulty,” Blain noted. “We also believe that ski landings on harder surfaces are feasible, because of the plane’s light weight and low landing speed.”
Granted, not everyone was on board. Some critics mocked the airplane, wondering what might happen if someone accidentally stuck it with a pin.
They may have had a point.
Pilot Ulm narrowly escaped death in April 1959 when the plane crashed into the Patuxent River during a test flight in Maryland. The wing collapsed and hit the propeller, forcing Ulm to bail out with a parachute to safety.
Two months later, disaster struck at Wingfoot Lake.
Army Lt. Malcolm Wallace, 26, of Greenville, Texas, was training on an Inflatoplane when it began to spiral out of control about 700 feet up.
“The engine sounded like it was going to conk out,” witness William Church told the Beacon Journal. “Then the plane went into a spin and the left wing seemed to deflate. The pilot stayed with the plane for a while, then jumped out.”
Wallace didn’t have enough time to open his parachute. He plunged to his death in a marshy area near the lake.
Needless to say, the death raised questions about the airplane’s practicality. If it could crash on a sunny day in Ohio, what would happen under enemy fire in a war zone?
By the early 1960s, the military lost interest in the Inflatoplane — and so did Goodyear.
The company produced a dozen models before pulling the plug on the Flying Mattress. In the 1970s, the three surviving Inflatoplanes were donated to the Smithsonian Institution, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus.
Today, the rubber plane remains an amusing novelty among aviation enthusiasts.
Oh, what might have been.
If only the idea had taken off, we might all own portable airplanes in our car trunks.