Fri April 18, 2014
An Airplane Off the Shelf
Ever since the Wright brothers began selling airplanes, there’s always been a mystique about the airplane owner. Not everyone can or will buy one. Seventy years ago, one man tried to make buying an airplane as easy as buying a shirt.
His name was Oliver Parks. His sales career began with chocolate bars and moved up to Chevrolets. After a close call as a young pilot in the late 1920's, he opened the Parks Air College, a flight school in East St. Louis. The college expanded during World War II, teaching thousands of GI's to fly. They would be coming home someday, and Parks assumed they’d want to keep flying He sensed a huge market opening up.
At a 1944 meeting in Riverdale, Maryland, he pitched a bold scheme to the Engineering and Research Company, or ERCO. ERCO had just what Parks needed—an airplane that could be marketed as safe and easy as driving a car. It was the Ercoupe, a low wing monoplane with two seats. The controls were simple—a steering wheel and no rudder pedals. It had wheels like a tricycle and could be driven on the ground just like a car. And best of all, it had been certified as incapable of spinning—a dangerous kind of stall, especially for inexperienced pilots.
Parks knew airplane manufacturers were going to compete for customers with refrigerator and car makers. He was convinced that the key to success was to sell airplanes in familiar surroundings—not in small airports, where light airplanes were typically sold, but in department stores. Parks knew the returning GIs and their families would buy almost everything else there.
Parks set up distribution and regional managers and signed up the stores. Marshall Field’s in Chicago was first. Famous Barr in St. Louis and others followed. ERCO, the airplane’s manufacturer, made other deals with stores directly, including Macy’s and JC Penny’s. Piper aircraft, a competitor, set up sales with Wannamakers. By the fall of 1945, there were airplanes nestled in sales floors among the blenders and overcoats all over the country.
Once hooked, a customer made a deposit on the airplane at the store, and then took delivery and instruction at a nearby airport. Initial sales were brisk. Ercoupe production grew from one part-time shift to three full time shifts going 24 hours a day. There were full-page ads in the New York Times. A postwar dream of an airplane in every garage seemed to be coming true.
And then it was over. Parks was almost correct in his predictions—the postwar consumer did want fridges and cars. Airplanes? Not as much. The manufacturers were soon drowning in unsold inventory. ERCO sold the Ercoupe off. Just over 5,000 were ultimately built by a variety of manufacturers through the 1970s. Parks was right about the product, though—over 2,000 of them are still flying. He gave his beloved air college to St. Louis University and went into prefabricated housing.
Paul Glenshaw is a writer living in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.