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In a Fit of 1940s Optimism, Greyhound Proposed a Fleet of Helicopter Buses

“Greyhound Skyways” would have turned major cities into bustling helicopter hubs

In the war years, Greyhounds were crowded with travelers, leading planners to look at a new technology: helicopters. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

One day, you’re sitting in a gray bus rolling down the road. The next, a helicopter!

The 1940s were a period of rapid technological advancement in America. On that account, perhaps, the planners at Greyhound can be forgiven for their optimism when, on this day in 1943, they promised that people would be trading up their bus seat for one on a helicopter bus soon.

The plan, reported the next day by the Chicago Daily Tribune, went like this: Greyhound would use the roofs of its already existing bus stations as landing pads for a fleet of ‘copters. Carl Eric Wickman, founder and then-president of Greyhound Lines Inc., told the Tribune that “the new service would be directed from Chicago, operate over the present bus system of 60,000 route miles and serve as a feeder system for established air transportation companies.”

They wanted to call it “Greyhound Skyways.”

A solution to chronic overcrowding on the Greyhound system was needed, wrote author Carlton Johnson in a 1980s history of Greyhound. One hundred and twenty million people were already riding Greyhound buses every year, the Tribune reported. According to Johnson, the war years were especially busy for Greyhound, with servicemen and women moving around the country and civilians following work or their loved ones to different cities.

At the same time, Greyhound was looking ahead to a future that potentially included interstate highways and more competitors. Adding a fleet of helicopters would allow the largest bus company in America to expand and stay competitive.

Testing on the system would begin “in the near future,” the Tribune reported, and Greyhound employees who were at that time serving overseas would be retrained to pilot the helicopters. 

Helicopters, which had been successfully tested in the United States only the year before, must have seemed like a perfect fit. Unlike airplanes, which require a great deal of space to land and take off, helicopters take off and land vertically, making them suitable for use in cities.

By 1945, Lucy Greenbaum reported for The New York Times that Greyhound was ready to move forward with the project. The bus company was trying to convince the Civil Aeronautics Board that the idea was sound. The Times reported that Raymond Loewy, an industrial designer whose pen touched blueprints for everything from trains to Air Force One, was also designing the air buses. Igor Sikorsky, the man who designed the first mass-produced helicopter in 1942, had collaborated on the design, the Times reported.

Johnson wrote that in 1943 Greyhound had around 450 buses on the road at any given time. Imagine that number of helicopter buses in the air over American metropolises and you can clearly see the problem. But in the mid’40s, a future that included personal helicopters was something people were thinking about.

“Many, Sikorsky included, hoped that the helicopter might become a vehicle for personal travel, as commonplace as the automobile,” writes Connecticut History. “But the advanced skill required to fly a helicopter kept it from becoming a family vehicle.”

Greyhound got the go-ahead to start trials in November 1943, reported the Times. But helicopter buses never went mainstream, although Greyhound did make some Skyways helicopters for tests in the late '40s. "The idea was permanently grounded by 1950," reports the Tribune.

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