Waterman Whatsit

Display Status:

This object is not on display at the National Air and Space Museum. It is either on loan or in storage.

Collection Item Summary:

A predecessor to Waldo Waterman's later Arrowplane and Aerobile, the unconventional design of the Whatsit tailless airplane was the first in Waterman's quest for an airplane that would be as easy to fly as it is to drive. First views by the press and onlookers in the early 1932 generated the prevailing question, "What is it?" Hence, the name "Whatsit." However, pitch stability and landing accidents plagued the first test flights, and the project was set aside until the Bureau of Air Commerce's challenge the following year for manufacturers to design and build a safe and inexpensive airplane for any person to fly.

With new test data, Waterman completely redesigned the Whatsit, and the new result was the Arrowplane, which won the Bureau's challenge along with the Stearman-Hammond Y. Both aircraft are in the Museum's collection. Following its useful test life, Waterman stored the Whatsit for several years in anticipation of donating it to the Smithsonian, and it arrived at the National Air Museum in 1950.

Collection Item Long Description:

The unconventional design of the Whatsit tailless airplane was the first design of Waldo Waterman's quest for an airplane that would be as easy for the average man on the street to fly as it would be for him to drive his "flivver" automobile. The "Whatsit" led to Waterman's Arrowplane and Aerobile designs, ventures in light, simple- to-fly and roadable aircraft. The Arrowplane was recognized by the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Aeronautics in 1934 for it safe flying characteristics and the Aerobile roadable design is now also in the Museum's collection.

In 1911, Waldo Waterman, of Santa Monica, California, was first inspired with the idea of the tailless roadable airplane by a remark pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss made about how nice it would be to drive his amphibian aircraft away from the landing field or water. In April 1932, Waterman and two assistants constructed an aircraft at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport at Van Nuys. The aircraft was constructed primarily as a test platform to develop the aerodynamic data for the tailless flying wing and to test the tricycle-landing gear. When first viewed in the air by the press and onlookers, the prevailing question was; "What is it? ", hence the name Whatsit. The airplane configuration was a tailless, low-wing monoplane pusher with 100-hp five-cylinder Kinner K-5 radial engine installed at the rear of the crew nacelle. The fuselage nacelle was welded steel tubing with metal covering and the wings were of fabric-covered wood. Directional control was provided by a combination of wing-tip mounted elevons and rudders mounted near the tips.

Upon completion in May 1932, the Whatsit was taxi tested at various speeds on the ground and several abortive attempts were made to fly it during May and June, with some resulting damage. After repairs, Waterman made the first test flight in July 1932. It was immediately apparent that the pitch stability of the airplane was somewhat limited because of the short coupling relationship of the engine thrust line to the aerodynamic center of pressure location that was inherent in the low-mounted swept-wing tailless configuration. Some flights were made with an adjustable horizontal stabilizer in front for trim purposes, but elevons provided lateral and longitudinal controls. In October, the Whatsit was nearly destroyed in a landing accident with another test pilot, and a serious reevaluation of the project indicated that major configuration changes would be required to make the aircraft safe for the intended customer, the novice pilot. These considerations, along with the chronic shortage of funding, led to the decision to place the airplane in storage. Waterman began flying for Transcontinental and Western Airlines (T&WA).

In 1933, Eugene Vidal, Chief of the Bureau of Air Commerce, issued a challenge to U.S. aircraft manufacturers to design and build a safe and inexpensive airplane for the man on the street. When Waterman reviewed Vidal's "Safe Airplane" specifications he was amazed to find how closely they followed his work in the three years of development on the Whatsit, so he left the airline and revived the project. After making design improvements, he flew the Whatsit again in February 1934, and, with this new test data, he decided to redesign it completely. The result was the new Arrowplane. To eliminate the pitch stability problem, the swept wing was moved to the high shoulder location with the engine thrust line more nearly in line with the aerodynamic center of pressure. It had a reliable Menasco 4 cylinder aircraft engine. The tricycle landing gear was improved with a steerable nose wheel and the vertical fins/rudders were moved directly to the wing tips. It was built in record time, being completed in May 1935, and test flown and delivered to the Bureau of Air Commerce in July 1935. The Waterman Arrowplane and the Hammond Y, the Bureau's other winner, both had cabins configured with auto-like simplicity in their appointments, controls, instrumentation and cabin entry doors and were the only two to receive awards.

The Arrowplane led to the establishment of the Waterman Arrowplane Company for the purpose of developing the roadable versions of the aircraft that culminated in the pre-World War II Arrowbile and the post-war Waterman Aerobile, described in its own web page.

Whatsit, X12272, was a player in the development of the tailless flying wing concept and was a major contributor in the reestablishment of the steerable nose wheel for the tricycle landing gear utilized in many of modern airplane designs. Following its useful test life, Waterman stored the airplane for several years in anticipation of donating it to the Smithsonian. In May 1948, he offered the Whatsit to the museum and began to rebuild the aircraft. He located a Kinner K-5 radial engine, patched the fuselage, and restored the windows, windshield, control cables and instruments. When he could not find tire replacements for the dual nose wheel tires, he made a pair out of wood for display purposes. He also repainted the aircraft in silver. The airplane was ready for shipment in November 1948, but for various reasons it was not shipped until May 1950. The Whatsit was initially stored at the museum's facility in Park Ridge, Illinois, and then to the Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland.