Travelers used to catch helicopter taxis between Chicago airports

Travelers used to catch helicopter taxis between Chicago airports
Written by Techbot

We’ve all been there: sitting in the back of a cab as it crawls through downtown traffic, the clock on the dash mocking you with its inexorable march towards a missed final boarding call and non-refundable ticket fees. Racing to make your flight is an experience nearly as old as commercial aviation itself — and one which has seen repeated solutions attempted throughout the years. Today, companies like Uber and Hyundai or United Airlines and Archer are working to get fleets of eVTOL aircraft to serve as short-hop air taxis, ferrying travelers from city centers to airports while avoiding the mess and hassle of ground-based traffic. In the ‘60s, companies like Chicago Helicopter Airways (CHA) just used a bunch of repurposed US Navy helicopters whose rotors almost never catastrophically failed. Almost.

Following WW2, the US government found itself with a massive surplus of military aircraft — we’re talking North of 150,000 individual planes, helicopters and sundry whirlybirds that all needed somewhere to go that wasn’t storage or a scrap yard. At the same time, an emergent middle class got the chicken in every pot and car in every driveway it was promised, along with all of the traffic and congestion that that particular American dream creates. So, in the early 1950s, the Federal government launched a series of grant programs to promote commuting via helicopter as an intra-city alternative to driving, simultaneously addressing both issues.

The CHA began its existence in post-war America 1948, as a regional mail delivery service operating in greater Chicagoland with a fleet of Sikorsky S-58C and H-34A Choctaw helicopters, but switched to carrying human passengers from 1956 to 1963. Its five-stop route moved between its home base in Winnetka, Illinois and O’Hare and Midway airports, the now defunct Meigs Field, and Gary, Indiana.

For $5 in 1962 money (or just under $50 today) travelers could get from Winnetka at the North end of the city to Terminal 3 at O’Hare, and do it in under ten minutes. Or for $11, sightseers could reserve space aboard a city-wide “Complete Triangle Flight” helicopter tour of Chicago. According to digitized pamphlets archived at TimetableImages, anyone flying to or from “Europe, South or Central America, Alaska or across the Pacific,” on Air France, BOAC Lufthansa, Mexicana, Northwest, PAA or TWA were entitled to a free helo-transfer between Midway and O’Hare.

At its peak in 1960, CHA operated 126 flights and carried 6,000 passengers daily. However, that success did not last long past the tragedy of Flight 698. On July 20th, 1960, 11 passengers and two crew members took off from O’Hare airport, headed for Midway under clear skies. Minutes into the journey, disaster struck when the main rotor failed and came apart. The crew attempted an emergency landing but were thwarted when the tail rotor subsequently broke off and the aircraft nose-dived into Forest Home Cemetery. It burst into flames, killing all 13 aboard.

Just three years later in 1963, CHA’s business had dropped off by half with just 3,000 people opting for helicopter rides to the airport. By 1966, the federal government’s grant programs had run their course and funding quickly dried up, effectively putting an end to CHA’s operations. The company attempted a comeback with limited service in 1969 but shuttered again for good in 1974. 

The CHA wasn’t alone in its air commute aspirations. It was joined by similar services in Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC and the San Francisco Bay Area. European cities launched their own services as well including Paris, Brussels, Dooseldorf and between the UK’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports.

Clearly the issue was that the aircraft of the day only had a measly single rotor to provide lift and placed it at risk of major mechanical failure. That’s not an issue with modern VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft, such as the six-rotor Bell Nexus, which was to be used in Uber’s now defunct air taxi service, a similarly-specced offering from Volocopter, or the five-rotor version that Boeing tested in 2019.

However, finding reliable funding remains a challenge — even Larry Page’s pet VTOL project, Kitty Hawk, ceased operations in 2022 — which has resulted in much of the technology’s development concentrating amidst existing aerospace corporations. Airbus is working on a VTOL of its own, as is Honda, while United announced plans to buy 500 units outright from VTOL maker Eve Air Mobility to jumpstart its fleet. Joby Aviation, which purchased Uber’s air taxi business in 2020, just received significant investment from Delta as well.

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