Rooftops to Rice Paddies: Aerial Utopianism, Helicopters, and the Creation of the National Security State



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This thesis describes the social construction of rotorcraft technology in the United States through the lens of the industry’s largest customer, the military, which provides a counternarrative to the deterministic inventor-entrepreneur accounts of rotary-wing development. The author argues that, as the federal state expanded rapidly between the New Deal and the Vietnam War, short-range aerial mobility (“vertical flight”) became central to new conceptions of American power, both at home and abroad. During the 1930s and ‘40s, the helicopter and its rotary-wing antecedent, the Autogiro, featured in the popular imagination as technologically modernist responses to the challenges of movement in dynamic urban landscapes, but failed to gain enough commercial investment to sustain the emergent rotorcraft industry. Meanwhile, military officers, like H. Franklin Gregory, explored the use of vertical flight as a solution to the uncertainties of modern warfare waged over difficult geographies, and in the process, provided a solid industrial base for helicopter manufacturing. By the Cold War, despite persistent hopes that vertical flight would transform the American landscape, military imperatives overshadowed commercial development as Army and Marine Corps leaders embraced helicopter mobility as an answer to the chaos of the atomic battlefield. General James Gavin’s reconfiguration of the Army around helicopters and battlefield atomic weapons, and an expansive application of force in Cold War geographies, rapidly brought vertical flight to the forefront of American power, including as a means of domestic authority and control. The prominent rise of military vertical flight contrasted starkly with the repeated failures of civil agencies to implement urban air mobility.