Fremonter's 1950s Aircar tested boundaries on way toward aviation legacy

2004-03-15T00:00:00Z Fremonter's 1950s Aircar tested boundaries on way toward aviation legacyBy Tammy Real-McKeighan/Tribune Staff Fremont Tribune
March 15, 2004 12:00 am  • 

Back in the 1950s, Ogden Lee Martin Sr. wanted to build a craft that could fly.

And be driven on land.

And travel across water.

So the Fremont man invented the Martin Aircar — a 750-pound plywood craft that resembled a huge wing. Martin, who sat inside a 4-foot compartment, drove the aircar along U.S. 77. He motored it across Victory Lake near Fremont and conducted test flights at the former Scribner Airbase (now Nebraska Motorplex).

Today, the aircar is housed in a Denver museum. And Martin's sons have many plans for a craft built by a man they believe had a major impact on science — with ideas developed decades ago.

"We were told this backyard engineer did more to change aviation before 1958 than what college grads were able to do at that time," said Ogden "Yogi" Martin Jr., a science teacher at Fremont Middle School.

Martin's father, nicknamed Bud, was in eighth grade when he quit school and started working at a body and fender shop during the Great Depression. He lived off Coca Cola and candy bars, giving any extra money he earned to his family.

In the 1940s and 1950s, he built airboats, worked on airplanes and did autobody work. He also was a pilot and owned a J3 Piper Cub. He even built heaters for those planes so they could be used in the winter, said Martin's son, Paul, who lives in Littleton, Colo.

Bud Martin also rebuilt an airboat — adding retractable landing gear from a plane to it — so the local game warden could patrol the Platte River looking for poachers, and then drive the craft home.

One evening, Martin was in his garage when he got the idea to develop a combination land, water and aircraft.

Ogden Jr. still remembers his father coming out of his shop with a wing-shaped paper airplane. Fins, made of heavy cardboard, were taped to the paper plane. Back in the shop, Martin stood on a ladder and sent the paper plane sailing across the room.

Martin developed the craft with a high lift air foil — in which fins on the aircar channeled the wind, lifting it off the ground. He also developed an air cushion design, where the craft's exhaust was pumped under the nose, forming a layer of bubbles that would help get it off the water.

He was the first person to patent that design, said Ogden Jr.

Martin tested his aircar at Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area and transported it on a trailer to the former Scribner Airbase. Paul remembers one frightening 6 a.m. flight. He was with his dad and some onlookers as his father prepared to make a test run and fly into the south wind. A storm was brewing, however, and as Martin was taxing the craft north, the wind shifted and hit the aircar head-on. Fins on the craft lifted the aircar up about 30 to 40 feet. Martin tried to cut the engine and shove the stick forward to get the nose down, but the craft went straight into the air then slid upside down on the runway.

"It was terrible," Paul said. "I was in the back of a pickup holding a fire extinguisher and I froze."

Friends grabbed the extinguisher, but the plywood fuselage hadn't sparked nor did the gas tank rupture. Ribs of the internal structure acted like a rollbar, protecting Martin and the gas tank (situated at the front of the craft for balance).

The aircar was damaged, but Martin was uninjured. He spent six months rebuilding the aircar.

Paul remembers another time when his dad put dealer license plates on the aircar and drove it home from the airbase. A motorist coming from the opposite direction became so engrossed with the aircar that he drove his own vehicle into a ditch.

Because the aircar was only an experimental craft, it just had light landing gear — and no springs. But Martin wanted to further develop and produce the aircar.

He and his wife, Gwendolyn, visited several major corporations, presenting his idea. He generated interest, but no money from those businesses. However, many people, including pilots and representatives from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and National Aeronautics Administration, came to Martin's garage at 1704 N. C St. to see the aircar. He gained a few private investors — including a state senator. The senator took interest after Martin had some of his ideas patented in the early 1960s.

Martin's dream of a prototype of the aircar never became reality.

Although he spent long hours working on his ideas, Martin spent precious little time caring for his own health. He died of diabetic shock at 11:30 a.m. Christmas Day 1965.

He was only 51.

One of Martin's investors, Al Hayden of Bennington, took the experimental aircraft, planning to rebuild the landing gear to prepare for more tests. But while trying to install the new landing gear, Hayden had a heart attack and died, Paul said.

After Hayden's death, Paul obtained the aircar and put it into the Forney Museum. The museum, now located at 4303 Brighton Boulevard in Denver, houses many examples of early transportation including bicycles, airplanes, cars and trains.

An automotive history magazine, "Cars & Parts," recently included photographs of the aircar on page 30 of its March 4 edition.

Ogden Jr. — who points out design similarities between his dad's aircar and NASA's space shuttle — hopes to bring the aircar to the National Air Show in Oshkosh, Wis., next summer. Eventually, he would like to have the craft on display in the Oshkosh National Museum.

In the meantime, Martin's sons, Ogden Jr. and Robert of Fremont and Paul, continue to appreciate their dad's ingenuity.

"He was a creative person who was always trying to build something and make things work. And if it didn't work, to find out why," Paul said.

Martin's endeavors would motivate Ogden Jr. to become a science teacher. He taught for 30 years in Valley, retired, and now is a science teacher at Fremont Middle School. He believes science involves "wanting questions answered and continuing to look for answers and not accepting the answer until you see that it's as far as it can go."

That's what his dad tried to do.

Aircar facts

The Martin Aircar was 7 feet, 10 inches wide, 18 feet long and 4 feet thick. An 85 horsepower continental aircraft engine situated toward the back of the aircar could send it soaring through the air at 75 mph.

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