Dreams of Downtown Airports

The idea of connecting city centers with vertical take-off airports never quite took off.


An artist’s imaginative concept of a vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) transport aircraft popped up on my computer screen the other day. It was a cross between Britain’s Shorts Skyvan cargo airplane, which looked like a winged-shoebox, and a reel lawn mower. “Oh, Lord,” I said. “Not again.”

I was about six years old when, walking home from school, one of my brothers pointed to a stumpy-winged, twin-propeller aircraft above. It was a Fairey Rotodyne—at that time the Western world’s biggest VTOL that was not a helicopter. In 1962, it was scrapped due to excessive rotor noise, fuselage vibration, and cost, ending high hopes.

It was commonplace then to point out that as urban roads became more congested, and as each new airport was built farther out of town than the one before, travel between neighboring city centers was actually getting slower. Helicopter flights connected downtown New York with Idlewild (as Kennedy was then known) and Brussels airport with central Paris, and faster VTOLs were the next thing. U.S. helicopter maker Kaman signed an agreement to build the Rotodyne, and New York Airways inked a letter of intent for five examples. But despite the enthusiasm, the Rotodyne I saw was a prototype. A commercial version would be new and bigger, with a jet-driven rotor that made as much noise as a Boeing 707.

Two decades later, downtown-to-downtown VTOL rose from its coffin with a hand from the advocates of the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, who promoted the idea of commercial tilt-rotors with the help of colorful brochures, imaginative videos, and wholly fictitious competitive threats from Japan. The boosters ignored the fact that the idea of a city-center VTOL had been exploded 15 years earlier.

France’s industry had never bought into VTOL transports, but the Breguet company was keen on short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) aircraft—those needing less than 1,500 feet of runway. The Breguet 941 was about the same size as the contemporary Rotodyne, but faster and simpler. It was a conventional aircraft except for propellers, control surfaces, and wing flaps that were oversized, and a cross-shaft that linked the four propellers and made the aircraft easier to keep under control if an engine failed. McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis took a license on the Breguet 941 in 1963 and took one of the airplanes on a tour of the United States in 1968-69, occasionally in Eastern Air Lines and American Airlines livery, to prove the idea of “Stolports” as an alternative to VTOL.

In 1970, airline economists and planners, regulators, and engineers got together in a “Northeast Corridor V/STOL Study” sponsored by the Civil Aeronautics Board. The study reached some irreproachable conclusions. Low-volume operations like Sabena’s helicopters would never make money in most places, and cities would not accept the noise and traffic of high-volume downtown heliports or VTOL-ports, even if space could be found for them. 

The alternative was a “brownfield” site on the edge of town. But this was the death of VTOL. Once you had ramp space to support economical traffic volume, terminal buildings, and car parks, adding a short runway on inexpensive land was not a show-stopper, and it made for a less costly aircraft. The CAB study concluded that even the Breguet 941 was more than you needed. With a 2,000-foot runway, you could use a conventional four-engine aircraft. It would be well under half the price of a VTOL and use far less fuel.

In late 1972, the Canadian government funded de Havilland Canada to build exactly that aircraft: the Dash 7. It had the misfortune to appear in 1974, in the wake of the first oil price shock, and by the time the world’s airlines started buying aircraft again, the industry structure was changing toward low fares and hub-and-spoke operations. Only one major brownfield airport would open: London City, pioneered by the Dash 7. And one by one, most of the world’s international airports acquired express rail links to their downtowns. A few Rotodyne fragments survive in museums, and the case against city-center VTOL is as strong as ever. 

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