As Paul Harvey used to say, “Here’s the rest of the story” about the Gettysburg man who tried to fly a plane to Mars.
People thought Cheston Eshleman, a Gettysburg High School graduate, was crazy when he tried to fly to Mars in a small airplane in 1939. Maybe they were right, but there’s a fine line between crazy and genius.
Eshleman’s flight of fancy cost him his pilot’s license, but it didn’t stop him from thinking about flying and how it could be done better. One of the things he thought about was how an airplane might be improved so that he could have had a better chance of flying further, although not necessarily in outer space.
One of his designs was called a “flying flounder” or “flying pancake” by people who saw it, but Eshleman called it his “flying carpet.” In 1942, the Gettysburg Times reported that the odd plane “has aroused the interest of Army and Navy officials.”
Eshleman, who was 25 years old, had been testing his new plane in Baltimore since January of 1942. By late July, it had flown successfully 62 times.
“A friend pilots the ship on its tests for Eshleman has been unable to fly since his license was revoked after a fishing boat picked him up at the end of his ‘Mars’ flight,” the Gettysburg Times reported.
Eshleman’s “flying carpet” was 24 feet long and 12 feet wide. It was made entirely of plastic except for some electronics and wiring. Eshleman and six other men had built the airplane in eight weeks at a cost of $5,000 (about $73,000 today). He told reporters that he believed that he could build a larger version of the plane in half the time.
“The wingless construction, he states, has reduced drag or wind resistance 30 per cent providing for speed increase. The aircraft, he asserts, retains normal lifting power, can land in a very small space, and will make 190 miles an hour when powered by a 130-horsepower motor. It has a normal tail assembly and a propeller in front,” the Gettysburg Times reported.
While most of the bugs had been worked out of the design by July, the maiden flight of the plane had been disappointing at best.
“The craft got a few feet off the ground, bounced back to earth, and caught fire. It looked like the end of an experiment which in a letter to President Roosevelt Eshleman had said would ‘cause all existing aircraft in the world to become historic,’” the newspaper reported.
Eshleman’s airplane designs were patented in 1943 and his start-up company began building light, commercial aircraft in Dundalk, Md.
After World War II ended, his attention seemed to shift from aircraft to other types of machinery. The Cheston L. Eshleman Company in Baltimore built lawn mowers, plows and garden tractors.
Then in 1953, his attention shifted again and he began building small, one-cylinder automobiles, golf carts, boats, and scooters. Though no longer building planes, he paid homage to his interstellar dream by calling his boat design, the “Rocket Boat,” which was built from surplus military aircraft wing tanks.
The one-cylinder, air-cooled, two-horsepower engine powered the car up to 15 mph and cost $295. It was sold as a child’s car while the adult car cost $395 and had a three-horsepower engine that could travel at 25 mph. The small cars featured battery-operated head and tail lamps, upholstered seats, and rocket emblems (an Eshleman trademark feature) on the flanks. The cars could also get 70 miles per gallon.
Eshleman ran an effective mail-order campaign to sell most of the vehicles. However, this proved a detriment when many people were disappointed at the small size of the cars, which were 54 inches long, 24 inches wide and 23 inches tall. They quickly returned the vehicles.
After a fire destroyed the Baltimore factory in 1956, the company moved to Crisfield, Md., and renamed itself the Eshleman Motor Company in 1959. It also started building slightly larger cars that were up to 72 inches long and 60 inches tall.
While the company continued building cars, Eshleman moved to Miami, Fla., and began working on new design for a front bumper. Eshleman called it a “crash absorber” and made it from a tire. It was impact resistant up to 15 mph.
Though he continued to invent and earn patents, Eshleman largely retired from the business world in 1967.
Eshleman died at age 87 in 2004, never having reached Mars, though he had certainly seen his dreams soar.