U of M and Ford study environmental impact of small VTOL aircraft.
Are flying cars just around the corner?
The world has been waiting. For years. But the time is now for flying cars to finally get off the ground. We hope.
Where have we heard that before? As if Hollywood hasn’t indulged us enough by featuring flying automobiles in everything from The Absent-Minded Professor to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to The Man with the Golden Gun and even Grease, real-life inventors have had their eyes on the sky for more than a century. Yet we keep waiting. And waiting.
For the love of all things holy, why hasn’t somebody figured this thing out yet? Will flying cars ever become a reality or will they always be the next big thing, just beyond the horizon?
Take heart in this: People used to ask the same thing about the mid-engine Corvette, and it may, finally, actually, truly, we’re not kidding, totally become reality next year. And so might flying cars. Air & Space Magazine writes in its September 2018 issue that they’re oh-so-close.
“You can find the future of aviation inside an unremarkable building in Woburn, Massachusetts, tucked behind an Irish pub and a Dunkin’ Donuts. This is where Terrafugia is working on the Transition, the most mature and probably the best known of a 21st century crop of aviation’s perennially just-around-the-corner technology: flying cars. With a pusher-propeller and wings that fold, the Transition is a light aircraft that seats two, boasts a flight range of 400 miles, and meets all the Federal Motor Vehicle safety standards. The airplane can run on automotive gasoline and fold its wings in less than a minute, a trick that converts it from an airplane into something that will easily fit in a garage.”
Back to the Future
If that sounds like something from the Back to the Future movies—there’s Hollywood again—it’s because the Transition is both futuristic and also a culmination of years of failed attempts to build a practical, marketable flying car.
Believe it or not, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company introduced the first flying car way back in 1917. The “Autoplane” was a car with detachable biplane wing, tail, and propeller section. Except the thing never flew. When World War I broke out, Curtiss concentrated on building JN-4 Jenny airplanes instead, and the flying car was shelved.
Henry Ford never built a flying automobile, but he believed in the concept. In the late 1920s he attempted to market a small, personal airplane called a Flivver, but when his test pilot was killed in one, he canceled the project. In 1940, Ford prophetically predicted, “Mark my word, a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”
It didn’t take long. Aircraft engineer and designer Theodore “Ted” Hall experimented with the concept of a winged car that could fly, and he proposed the idea for use in commando-type raids during World War II. Although the idea was rejected, Hall anticipated an aviation boom after the war. In 1946, Hall and partner Tommy Thompson introduced a flying car on behalf of San Diego’s Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (Convair): the Convair Model 116.
The “roadable plane,” featured in the April 1946 issue of Popular Science magazine, had two engines: a 90-horsepower Franklin 4A4 air-cooled flat-four for air travel and a 26-hp Crosley air-cooled four-cylinder engine for the road. It could fly up to 110 mph, and after shedding its detachable monoplane wings, tail boom, and two-bladed wooden propeller, the car was capable of 60 mph on the highway. “The forward end of the engine crankshaft turns the prop, while a shaft extends aft from the engine into a conventional automobile transmission and differential,” Popular Science explained. “Power goes both to propeller and rear wheels for take-off.”
The Model 116 prototype completed 66 test flights, the first coming on July 12, 1946, but the flying car never went into production. Instead, Hall created a more refined and more powerful version, the Model 118. It had a wingspan of 34.5 feet, was about 8.25 feet tall, and had a gross weight of 2550 pounds. The two-engine configuration included a 190-hp Lycoming O-435C air-cooled flat-six that provided a top speed of 125 mph in the air. On the road, the car was powered by the same Crosley engine as the Model 116.
Hall built two 118s in 1947—two because the first one ran out of fuel and crashed in the desert, proving that mid-flight is a bad place notice the needle is on E. No one was hurt, and many of the machine’s parts were undamaged, so Hall constructed another 118. The test flights continued, but it was Convair’s turn to run out of gas. The company canceled the program, and the Model 118 never went into production.
If at first you don’t succeed…
More flying cars were just over the horizon. Moulton Taylor’s Aerocar first took flight in 1949, and for nearly 20 years he kept improving upon the original model until he declared the Aerocar III, featuring an unusual Y-tail, ready for production in 1968. Taylor even considered the legalities of a flying car and received approval from the Civil Aeronautics Authority while also complying with state highway regulations.
The Aerocar’s wings and propeller section could be towed behind in a trailer and attached in 15 minutes. And the thing flew like a champ. But no manufacturer was willing to produce it.
In the last 50 years, other flying cars have been built with similar high hopes but haven’t found much market appeal. Ten years ago—62 years after first reporting on Ted Hall’s Convair invention—the cover of Popular Science’s March 2008 issue asked what many frustrated enthusiasts were likely thinking: “Where’s my flying car?”
The wait may be over
Terrafugia, recently purchased by Chinese automaker Geely, may finally have the answer in the Transition. It hopes to bring the flying car to market in 2019—10 years after the first Transition prototype took flight.
In 2015, Terrafugia unveiled a slightly different version of the flying car called the TF-X, which is still in the early stages of development. Terrafugia hasn’t projected a release date.
The Transition is more of a plane that can drive on the roads if needed, not something you’d pack up for a road trip with some light flying at your destination. According to Air & Space magazine, the Transition (in its third generation and final design phase) “is designed to mitigate the reasons general aviation pilots choose not to fly—fear of getting stuck somewhere due to bad weather, being marooned on the tarmac after landing, getting stuck with excessive parking and fueling fees—and to attract new fliers. It’s designed to make flying easy, with only a 20-hour sport-pilot license required to get behind the stick.”
“The vision is to make personal flight useful for everyone, not just for the niche community that finds general aviation fun today,” says Terrafugia founder Carl Dietrich. “We would like people who never thought of becoming a pilot before to consider it because, hey, it’s a flying car.”
Dietrich says the cost of the Transition “will likely be close to, but under, a half-million dollars,” which he says is “on par with the current best-selling aircraft”—the $700K Cirrus SR22 and $400K Cessna 172.
Terrafugia is hardly alone in its quest to mass produce flying cars. Air & Space reports that no fewer than 10 ventures are working on designs. One of those is AeroMobil, a Slovakian firm that first flew its sleek hybrid-electric roadable airplane in 2013 and hopes to bring it to market in 2020. The 19-foot-long AeroMobil 4.0 runs on electric power while in flight and gasoline on the road, and it fits in a standard parking space. Like Terrafugia’s Transition, it is powered by standard fuel but will require a pilot’s license to operate. Price estimates range from $1.3M–$1.6M.
On a more affordable scale—and using a slightly different method of flight—is the $94,000 Maverick LSA built by I-Tec in Dunnellon, Florida. While the Maverick looks fun and is definitely a vehicle that flies, its parachute-and-prop configuration isn’t exactly what most people imagine when they think of a flying car.
Terrafugia and AeroMobil have the right idea: a vehicle that can transform from car to plane and back again within minutes. Maybe—finally—all of our flying car dreams are about to come true. If not, who wants to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang this weekend?