Louis Setter and his dream: The General FM-1 Flying Motorcycle

Louis Setter (Courtesy photograph)

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
Funny how things come into my life and ending up being typed out on this old laptop of mine.

There’s not much rhyme or reason to it, but when a story shows up from “wherever,” I take a hard look to see if it has an unknown quality that will be something new and appealing to a reader.

The life of Col. Louis Setter is pretty well documented as a pioneering Air Force pilot and flight test engineer. Many around the Antelope Valley are familiar with his accomplishments and exploits, having heard his story via history panels and other events he was a part of. Colonel Setter passed away back in 2019 and, before that, he was looking to take many of his stories and put them into some literary format, to tell of his years pushing the envelope and being a part of many firsts in aerospace history.

In my travels, I come across all kinds of people and many have grown up or shared community with many of these greats like Setter. One such person is Pat Arnold, who had come into possession of Setter’s notes and comments for a future book that was, sadly, never started, except for the rough drafts resting in folders in a scattered format. As I looked them over, I realized his book would have been a difficult write, as many of the projects he was involved with were of a very sensitive nature. He even mentions in his writings that, many years after a program or test project was completed and information was released, he still would not share information and complied with the strict code of silence that surrounded the projects he was privy to, even after 63 years.

When I started to read and try to understand the man, I turned to the internet. Even though old articles and obituaries were sources of much information about his life, there was a sizable void in those black op areas, going as far as sites that had pictures of him removed when depicting aircraft and individuals working in that realm on a dry lake far away!

Reading about his military and civilian years, I don’t think there was ever an aircraft or program he was not involved with. When it came to the world of flight test engineering, he pretty much had the “Right Stuff,” to use a well-worn phrase in the world of aviation pioneers.

After reading and thumbing through different pages of his recollections, I felt he was having a hard time looking for how his life could best fit the written text — but I believe he found it in the project he had pursued since 1950, and ramped up when the glory years of flight test and military adventures were in his rear view mirror. I will share his written words about a project that for decades was in the back of his mind. It was only when he had time to pursue his own dreams that he detailed the next steps into realizing a concept he had envisioned for many years.

Louis Setter’s sketch of his FM-1 Flying motorcycle. (Courtesy photograph)

The General FM-1 Flying Motorcycle
“Since 1950, I have been fascinated with the thought of designing, building and operating a flying car or flying three-wheeled motorcycle. My first design concepts were pretty clunky, with high drag and were impractical, but all were integrated designs: that is, wings and tail were folded for ground operations; the wings and tail were not left at the airport, as is the plan for a lot of designs I have seen. The advent of Burt Rutan’s radical and very successful designs, particularly his asymmetrical designs, fascinated me and convinced me that my design could actually be built and successfully flown and should be both fun and economical to drive and fly.

My design requirements are stated in detail below but I feel strongly that this design, based on motorcycle technology and which could be licensed as a motorcycle, a very big advantage, is practical and doable. If I can keep the weight within the maximum for light sport craft aircraft, which would only require a car driver’s license, it would be another great advantage.

I simply want a personal, two-place flying motorcycle with folding wings and tail that drives and handles like a motorcycle on the ground and that flies like an RV-6 or some other homebuilt airplane with good handling qualities and that can also operate as a seaplane!

I know this sounds farfetched, but read through my following narrative, look at the three-view sketch and use your imagination. This is possible and would be very economical, because it would be parked in the garage and would be driven to the nearest airport. It would use auto gas and, for the most part, motorcycle parts and maintenance.”

So here you have this man’s vision of a project that he was very passionate about. His detailed narrative looked at every nut and bolt and how the systems and emergency backup systems would work. You could tell he carried the experience of all those Lockheed years, working around the likes of Kelly Johnson, and saw his project in the same way Kelly did when it came to the aircraft he designed.

A similar design today, not far off from the vision of Louis Setter. (Courtesy photograph)

Col. Louis Setter, a renaissance man, had been in everything from the U-2 on down. I find it heartwarming that his real passion in his later years was a simple three-wheel motorcycle that could fly, and that he was pushing to make his vision a reality. The sketch you see here is from his sharpened pencil, which is the way many of the wonderous machines of the 20th century got their start so many years ago. I see today that yes, maybe not his personal project, but his vision bore fruit, as a couple of innovative companies are now offering for sale products similar to what Louis had envisioned way back in 1950.

In the future, I hope to bring a few more of the Louis Setter short stories to my readers, as he sure has some amazing stories with him at the stick, controlling some great airframes. What I like most about his FM-1 Flying Motorcycle is it tells us that, even with life’s big adventures behind us, it doesn’t mean you’re done dreaming of what you can accomplish in your life.

Until next time, Bob out …

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