The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1989, Volume 35, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Waldo: Pioneer Aviator: A Personal History of American Aviation.

Waldo Dean Waterman, with Jack Carpenter. Carlise Mass: Arsdalen, Bosch & Co., 1988: Bibilography. Illustrations. Index. 492 pages. paperback. $18.95

Reviewed by Ray Wagner, Archivist of the san Diego Aerospace Museum, author of American Combat Planes, etc.

Waldo Waterman’s life in aviation began at age fifteen when he became the first person to make a glider flight within the city of San Diego. That adventure at Albatross and Maple Streets on 1 July 1909, soon involved the teenager with the airplanes on North Island.

Gleen Curtiss had opened there a camp to train the first naval aviators, as well as his private customers, and Waterman soon became a part-time helper, in between his high school classes. He was only seventeen when a friendly pilot taking him for a joy ride crashed into the bay, wiping out a third of the Navy’s current aircraft strength. But Waterman persisted and dropped out of college to pursue a career in California aviation as pilot, designer, and manager.

This career brought friendship with famous aviation personalities and involvement with several controversial developments in civilian aviation. An important virtue of this autobiography is that Waterman’s experiences are told within a description of the social and historical background of American aviation.

Barred from military flying because of crash injuries, he became an aviation instructor in World War I and managed a factory building Curtiss Jenny trainers for the Air Service. After the war, at age twenty-six, he had his own company at Venice, California, modifying and constructing custom-built aircraft, selling them one at a time as buyers turned up. Whether making a profit by buying surplus Boeing seaplanes for $150 each and selling them for $550, or flying for Trans-World Airlines during the Depression, his stories are told with good humor and insight.

His adventures included working with motion pictures about airplanes and he points out that almost fifty aviators were killed while stunting for the movies between 1925 and 1930. Other activities were an airline to Big Bear, experiencing a scandalous airmail system, test flying Bach trimotors, winning a transport race, and managing an airport in Van Nuys. He was living in Santa Monica for most of this time.

The Waterman project that attracted the most attention was the automobile-airplane combination called the Arrowbile. He excited press and public with his demonstrations, driving it like a car to the airport, where the sweptback Wings were put on for flying. The first flight was made 21 February 1937, and two machines were successfully flown across the country to Cleveland to be demonstrated at the National Air Races.

Waterman realized that tricycle landing gear was a key to safer flying by inexperienced pilots, and pioneered a tailless layout with a pusher propeller. His basic design had begun with the experimental “Whatsit” of 1934, and developed into the Arrowplane, purchased by the government for the 1935 competition to design a cheap ($700!) personal plane. Studebaker provided the auto engine used in the prototypes, and supported his hope to build one thousand a year at an attractive price. The author describes how his plans failed, and readers who are still interested in the Arrowbile concept will appreciate his frank appraisal of his failed dream.

While World War II advanced many aviation enterprises, Waterman’s lack of interest in military matters limited his participation to teaching, and to research at the Bill Stout organization purchased by Convair. By 1951, he retired to Point Loma as a gentleman made prosperous by real estate instead of airplanes, and while an active yachtsman, was still building and flying replicas of old aircraft.

He continued flying until 1972, the oldest licensed pilot in the country. This book was dictated by Waterman in 1975, and completed by a friend of long standing, although Waldo himself died in 1976, when 82 years old. It is generously illustrated with pictures of the planes and peoples he describes in colorful detail, with valuable insights into the aviation business of his time.