a Flying Car

Soaring Above Traffic In a Flying Car Sooner Than You Think.
By Chuck Squatriglia December 04, 2007 | 6:49:39 PMCategories: Air Travel, Travel
The flying car has been a dream pursued by inventors since the dawn of aviation and a fantasy long held by commuters wishing they could soar above traffic like George Jetson.

Engineers and eccentrics have patented more than 70 designs since 1918, and even the U.S. government and Henry Ford tried to build flying cars. But success has been elusive, the challenge too great, and such machines have remained the stuff of science fiction.

Until now.

An aeronautical startup called Terrafugia has developed a small airplane called the Transition that it says can take to the sky as easily as the road. It is about the size of a large SUV and features innovative folding wings that collapse with the press of a button. Terrafugia calls it a “personal air vehicle.”

The team behind the Transition still has to design a drivetrain to propel the craft and a mechanism to transfer power from the propeller to the wheels, but it expects to begin flight tests late next year.

Production could begin as early as 2009, and Terrafugia says it’s already received more than 30 orders.

Not long after Henry Ford started building cars and the Wright brothers proved we could fly, an inventor and aviator named Glenn Curtiss built the first flying car in 1917. The Curtiss Autoplane wasn’t much to look at and it barely got off the ground, but it proved that it was possible to merge automobile and airplane into a single machine.

Still, the Autoplane and most of the “roadable” aircraft that followed had the same problem – combining the mechanics of an automobile with those of an airplane created something that didn’t work well as either. It also proved exceedingly difficult to design a machine light enough to fly but robust enough to drive without being blown off the road. There were some that worked – most notably the Airphibian and the original Aerocar, the only flying cars certified by the Federal Aviation Administration – but most were unstable cars and clumsy airplanes.

Advancements in composite materials and metal alloys have addressed many of those problems, and Terrafugia is in a race with several other companies to bring a flying car to market. They include Moller International, Aerocar and Urban Aeronautics.

The Transition isn’t so much a car you can fly but an airplane you can drive, and it is meant to be an alternative to driving for trips between 100 and 500 miles.

“This is not going to replace your Toyota Camry,” company founder Carl Dietrich told the Boston Globe. “You could take it to the store, but it doesn’t have the trunk space of your SUV.”

The preliminary specifications calls for an aircraft 19 feet long and 80 inches wide with the wings folded (the wingspan is 27 feet). It will have a 100-horsepower engine powered by unleaded fuel and a propeller at the rear. The airplane will cruise at 115 mph and have a range of about 460 miles, and it will have room for two people and 550 pounds of cargo. It will weigh 1,320 pounds.

The self-folding wings make the Transition unique, as past flying cars used wings that had to be removed or folded manually. The idea was to make the transition from airplane to automobile as quick and seamless as possible. The design team unveiled the folding wing design in July at the annual AirVenture aviation festival, where they opened and closed the wings more than 500 times without a problem. The wings feature several mechanical and electrical locks to ensure they don’t collapse in flight.

“Going into this, we knew our two biggest design challenges to make it practical would be the wings and the powertrain,” Anna Mracek, an engineer and chief operating officer at Terrafugia, told Technology Review. “By validating the durability of the wing’s construction and engineering, we’ve checked on major design challenge off the list, and now our focus is on the second.”

But the greatest challenge may be getting the Transition certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration. The aircraft will be classified as a light sport aircraft, and a sport pilot license will be required to fly it. Such licenses generally require less time to obtain than traditional licenses.

Mracek says the company has been working closely with the two agencies “to make working with them as painless as possible” and has made inroads toward certification. The FAA says “the concept of airplanes as personal transportation” is on its radar, so to speak.

Dietrich founded Terrafugia – Latin for “escape from land” – three years ago while still pursuing a doctoral degree in aeronoautical and aerospace engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He got his pilot’s license at 17, and even as a boy dreamed of building a flying car, and his design for the Transition was among a portfolio of ideas that earned him the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize last year.

He and the rest of the Terrafugia team believe the time is right for a flying car. They note that there are 5,296 public airports in the United States, and most people are within 20 miles of one. With many of those airports being underutilized and several studies, including the annual Urban Mobility Report, showing traffic congestion getting worse nationwide, Dietrich believes personal air vehicles may be the transportation of the future.

Maybe Henry Ford was right after all when he said in 1940, “Mark my word – a combination airplane and motor car is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

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