Flying cars go back to the future

Once dismissed as a flight of fancy, the flying car is preparing for takeoff again

Previous spread: Getty; Redux; Courtesy of Terrafugia; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

One spring day more than 15 years ago, Col. Joe Kittinger, an experimental test pilot and world-renowned extreme skydiver, slid into the driver’s seat of a 1954 Taylor Aerocar, coaxed it to a speed of 130 km/h on a runway outside Minneapolis, and took the craft, looking something like a stubby Volkswagen with wings, to the air. Kittinger was in his mid-70s and, as a fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, had flown dozens of aircraft over a career that spans 16,800 flying hours. Yet this was the first flying car, and it was almost 50 years old. “I didn’t have anybody to talk to who’d ever flown it before,” says Kittinger, speaking from his home outside Orlando, Fla. “I just got in it and taught myself how.”

Within a week, he’d learned the ins and outs of managing the Aerocar in flight. One quirk of the mechanism, he quickly learned, has to do with how the steering wheel controls both its front wheels and, simultaneously, the aileron, a flap on the trailing edge of an aircraft’s wings that manages roll. When landing, Kittinger realized he would have to jam the wheel dead straight to prevent it from lurching sideways when the front wheels hit the ground.

His last day piloting this “roadable” aircraft—which refers to a plane that also drives—coincided with an air show at the Anoka County Airport in Blaine, Minn., and Kittinger decided to give the crowd something to talk about. He installed a truck’s air horn and approached the spectators from the sky honking, the windshield wipers flapping, the turn signal blinking. “Everybody laughed their butts off,” he says. “Here was this airplane flying but looking like a car and sounding like a truck.” When he landed before the crowds, he immediately put the machine in reverse and backed up—something no airplane can do. “They thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen,” Kittinger says. “It was a spectacle.”

And that’s pretty much what the flying car has been over the last half century or so: a novelty. The little flying buggy that Kittinger grew to love—“flying airplanes is fun, and the Aerocar was a fun airplane to fly,” he says in his subtle Southern drawl—had previously been employed delighting the crowds at an amusement park in Athol, Idaho. That’s a sad circumstance for one of the world’s five remaining operational Aerocars—only six were ever made—frequently cited as the closest we’ve ever come to realizing the Depression-era dream of “an airplane in every garage.” Designed in the late ’40s, the Aerocar hauls its wing and tail apparatus, folded up behind it like an origami trailer, until such time as the driver wants to fly. “The changeover from plane to auto can be made by a woman in a fur coat with high heels on,” its inventor, Moulton Taylor, is said to have boasted. As novelties go, the Aerocar is an expensive one. The Minneapolis-based aviation collector who now owns it, Greg Herrick, has put it up for sale for US$975,000. (“Do I expect to sell it? No. But if somebody wants it it’s available.”) What’s worse, it needs both aviation insurance and car insurance.

It’s those neither-fish-nor-fowl circumstances that have scuttled the flying car for over a century. In 1947, the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corp., an American airplane manufacturer, planned to produce 160,000 Convair Model 118s—basically a plastic Studebaker with detachable wings—until a test pilot confused the prototype’s two fuel gauges (one was for the road, the other for the air) and took off on an empty tank. The subsequent crash, on mud flats near San Diego, dampened enthusiasm for the project.

Yet the flying car has endured since the turn of the last century as a potent, perennial symbol of the future. “It’s an early-to-mid-20th-century idea about the power and freedom technology will give us,” says Patrick Gyger, author of Flying Cars: The Extraordinary History of Cars Designed for Tomorrow’s World, from his home in Nantes, France. “It’s a very materialistic, capitalistic perspective, also, to be honest—the idea that, once we conquered the roads, then we would conquer the skies.” From The Jetsons to the soaring, rocket-propelled DeLorean of Back to the Future to the ominously silent zero-gravity police cruisers of Blade Runner, the flying car has dominated our visions of utopia and dystopia alike.

So it’s strange to consider just how many real flying cars litter our past. “At least 300 flying cars have actually flown, and most people don’t realize that,” says enthusiast John Brown. “The dream of a flying car goes back to before the dream of the airplane. Why would somebody try to design a vehicle to fly from one airport to another when there were no airports?”

Brown has uncovered a 1908 film of a short test flight featuring a drivable aircraft invented by Danish aviation pioneer Jacob Ellehammer. Ellehammer trained as a watchmaker and his contraptions have the magical look of spinning mobiles designed by the surrealist artist Miró. Although his designs appeared promising, they never did get off the ground.

So it was with the Stout Skycar of 1931, the Autogiro Company of America’s AC-35 from 1936, the Waterman Aerobile of 1937 and the Fulton Airphibian from 1947. All bust (and all part of the collection at the National Aerospace Museum in Washington, a unit of the Smithsonian). “The reason was simple,” Joseph J. Corn writes in his 2002 book The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation. “Designers of air-road hybrids made too many compromises. Their machines were analogous to frogs and other amphibians, which, although they manage adequately on land as well as in water, are easily outperformed by mammals and fish. They are specialized for life in a single environment.”

Today, however, several companies are developing flying cars that could solve these technical issues, as well as more recent barriers such as regulatory hurdles. The Terrafugia Transition, designed and built by engineers trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and unveiled in April at the New York International Auto Show, dispenses with the Aerocar’s U-Haul trailer of wings and tail. “It’s literally like putting the top down on a convertible,” says Carl Dietrich, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “You just hold a couple of buttons down and the wings fold up. It takes 40 seconds and away you go.”

The wings weren’t the most difficult challenge for Dietrich and his team: it was meeting two demanding sets of rules—for cars and planes—in a single package. “Both the aviation and automotive worlds are very highly regulated, and those regulations were put in place based on single-purpose vehicles,” says Dietrich. “Bridging those two vast bodies of regulation is a significant challenge in a package that has to fly and drive safely, that’s easy to operate, that can sit inside your single car garage, drive down the road at highway speeds and fly like a normal little airplane.”

Meeting regulations imposed in the U.S. by both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is burdensome primarily because the requirements often increase the weight of the craft. And weight is a flight killer. For Dietrich, it’s an oppressive litany: “Four wheels, a drive system, a steering wheel, airbags, pre-tensioning seat belts, lighting, turn signals, a horn—a whole bunch of things you don’t have to have on an airplane that we need because this thing has to be legal to drive on the road,” he says. “All of that adds additional weight.”

Terrafugia, which in Latin means “escape the earth,” has solved these weight problems using light-weight, carbon-fibre composite materials, aircraft-grade titanium, a super-light engine that runs on auto fuel, and even a modern glass avionics system—the dials and gauges of the cockpit dashboard—that weighs a fraction of those in traditional planes.

If only weight was the only thing holding up—or keeping down—a workable flying car. The technical issues are myriad, and aerodynamics is far from the least. “A plane is designed to leave the ground at the lowest possible speed,” explains Brown, whose book on the subject of flying cars will be released in German next year. “You sit in a Cessna and hit the gas and it will start leaving the ground at 70 or 80 km/h. That’s not very fast. If your car started leaving the ground at that speed you would have a big problem. A car needs downforce—something holding it on the ground.”

Brown, who is also project manager at Carplane, a German-based competitor of Terrafugia Transition, is originally from Australia. His fascination with flying cars stems from a conversation he overheard between Sir Jack Brabham, a champion Formula One race-car driver, and Luigi Pellarini, an aviation designer who built two flying cars in his native Italy in the 1940s before he immigrated to Australia. Brown recalls the two men discussing the ins and outs of aerodynamics. Brabham had revolutionized Formula One race-car design by taking an airplane wing, turning it upside down and making that the basis for his new speedster: the resulting aerodynamics created such incredible downforce that Brabham could take corners much faster than his competitors. Pellarini, on the other hand, just like all flying-car pioneers, struggled to create a craft that would take to the air or keep to the ground at the driver’s bidding.

The Carplane, a project that began in 2008 and has since produced a full-sized working model, employs an ingenious metamorphosis technique. In car mode, the two-seater uses its wings, folded up like the arms of a praying mantis in the rear, to maintain a downforce similar to that of Brabham’s race car. But at the flick of a switch these wings stretch out and pivot up, creating instant lift.

That mechanical manoeuvre also solves a third problem: cars tend to have their centre of gravity midway between their front and rear wheels to prevent spin-out on the corners (a front-heavy vehicle would fishtail in the rear and vice versa). An airplane, meanwhile, wants all its weight concentrated in the back, because a front-loaded nose wouldn’t come up off the ground. As the Carplane’s wings fold out, its centre of gravity shifts back also, giving the nose lift.

But will the contemporary flying car ever take off? While Terrafugia is intent on getting its Transition to a good swath of the moneyed set—it’s slated to go into limited production late next year with a US$279,000 price tag—Brown doesn’t believe the flying car will be the mass commuter vehicle of the future, the promised “airplane in every garage.” Carplane’s market will include leisure and business travel in the 300- to 1,000-km range, but emergency and military applications, including the delivery of organs for transplant, is where Brown sees the most immediate future for the flying car. “I wouldn’t eliminate anything in the distant future, but you can’t plan a product like we’re doing—and we’re in this to make money—for a market that doesn’t exist. Right now you just simply don’t have the infrastructure, you don’t have the city airports.”

The questions are infinite. Who will license all the new pilots? How will an already stretched air-traffic control system manage the new volume? These are still unknowns—but perhaps not for long.

Brown is aware of a handful of major car companies who are poised to unveil competitors to the Terrafugia Transition and Carplane—including one unnamed outfit that called Brown not long ago looking for what he deemed proprietary details about the Carplane. “He wanted to know, he said, for his own private interest,” says Brown. “Which of course is baloney. I said we can’t reveal that at this time.”

Which sounds an awful lot like competition—the spur of invention. Perhaps the future is closer than we think.

Air traffic jams, anyone?

Watch Edie Weiner, futurist with Weiner Edrich Brown (WEB), on how we will unlock other futuristic secrets, like THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE!

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