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May 21, 2009

News & Features

Sky-high: With the testing of a flying car, are we closer to the ultimate hybrid?

New York Times News Service

Flying car

The Terrafugia Transition shortly after takeoff. (Photo courtesy of Terrafugia)

In the 1974 James Bond film "The Man With the Golden Gun," the evil title character, Francisco Scaramanga, eludes Agent 007 by attaching a jet engine, wings and tail assembly to his AMC Matador Coupe and flying away.

It's Hollywood, of course. But the idea of a flying car has long gripped the imagination of a gridlocked public.

"It's always been, and will continue to be, a dream for any mechanic," says Tyghe Trimble, the online editor of Popular Mechanics. "People are trying to reach this Holy Grail."

The grail now seems within closer reach.

The Terrafugia Transition took to the skies in March for a brief but successful test flight in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Designed with folding wings that can transform it from a two-seat car to a plane in 15 seconds, the Terrafugia could be available as early as the end of next year.

"This flight is a symbol of a new freedom in aviation," says Terrafugia's chief executive, Carl Dietrich.

But that freedom has been a long time coming. "There have been 104 flying cars," says John Brown, chief editor of the Web site Roadable Times, "and none have been practical."

Try, fly again
  • 1917: Pioneering aviator Glenn Curtiss built what is widely considered the first serious attempt at a flying car. His huge, three-winged Autoplane didn't do much more than hop.
  • 1949: Prolific inventor Robert E. Fulton Jr. built the Airphibian, which he once drove and flew from Connecticut to New York City to attend a show on Broadway. It never went into mass production.
  • 1956: Moulton Taylor, an aeronautical engineer, came up with the Aerocar, one of which was used by actor Bob Cummings. It never went into mass production.
  • 1973: Henry Smolinski fashioned the AVE Mizar from a Cessna Skymaster and a Ford Pinto (yes, a Pinto). The hybrid came apart in midair, killing Smolinski and his pilot, Harold Blake.

Brown has identified 26 distinct technical hurdles. "Cars and airplanes have completely different types of engines," he says. "Also, cars have an aerodynamic that makes them hug the ground, whereas an aircraft is designed to do just the opposite."

Nonetheless, flying-car buffs believe that these purely mechanical challenges can be overcome, thanks to stronger, lighter engines and new materials, especially carbon-fiber derivatives. Brown agrees.

"In the next five years," he says, "the world will have a practical flying aircraft that could be used for commuting. It won't be long, I tell you. All my friends call me from traffic jams somewhere and say, 'Tell your people to hurry up!' "

He says 11 companies or consortiums around the world are developing their own versions of a flying car.

Even if roadable aircraft can be practically engineered, other issues remain. One is cost. The Terrafugia is expected to retail for about $194,000, making it what some aviation buffs call an RMT (rich man's toy).

Also, who would be qualified to operate these contraptions? A pilot's license is generally required.

"A flying car that works on a large scale has to be autonomous to some degree, because humans can't pilot in general," says Daniel Wilson, author of "Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived." "We're lousy drivers on the ground. When you add another dimension to that and take away the road, that makes things even more difficult."

Wilson says that GPS-guided collision-avoidance mechanisms, along with ground-based control systems, might be the solution. But he's not holding his breath.

"Long after we have the technology, we still won't have flying cars," he predicts, "because we'll still have to figure out who's responsible when the thing wrecks."

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