From the Runway to the Road: Terrafugia Redefines the Flying Car—Make That Drivable Airplane
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a change in FAA rules in 2004 that created a new category of general-aviation planes called special light-sport aircraft (S-LSA) and a new type of pilot’s license called a sport pilot certificate.
In a nutshell, if a company can manufacture a plane that weighs less than 1,320 pounds, carries no more than two people, and flies no faster than 138 miles per hour, it can get the craft qualified as an S-LSA, meaning that owners need only a sport pilot certificate to fly it. Getting a sport pilot certificate involves only about half as much flight training as qualifying for private pilot certificate, the license previously required for most general aviation flyers.
The rule change “created a whole new way of getting a vehicle to market,” Dietrich says. “There’s more innovation and activity now than we’ve seen in aviation since the 1930s.” More than 70 new types of aircraft have hit the market since 2004, mostly two-seaters like the Transition. But none of them, so far, are also designed to be driven on roadways.
Flying cars have been the obsession of many a pilot over the decades; indeed, one aeronautical engineer, a World War II Navy missile designer named Moulton Taylor, built a series of certified roadable planes called Aerocars between 1949 and 1968, and came close to winning a mass-manufacturing deal with Ford. But the idea has never really taken off. (No apologies for that pun—every flying-car story needs at least one.)
What convinced the Terrafugia co-founders that it was time to try again, says Dietrich, was a 2002 survey by MIT aero-astro professor John Hansman, who identified four key barriers supposedly keeping people from using small planes as a practical way to get around the country. The first and (so far) least changeable barrier was weather—it’s simply no fun to fly a small plane in choppy conditions.
The second barrier was the high cost of private planes. An entry-level single-engine plane like the Cessna Skyhawk costs upwards of $230,000. Add gas, maintenance, and hangar fees, and it’s easy to see why general aviation is mainly a rich man’s pastime.
The third barrier was the fact that only about one third of the nation’s small, general-aviation airports have rental-car facilities or cab stands—meaning that once you fly in, you’re stuck. Fourth and last was the long door-to-door travel time: If you’re trying to get to a business meeting, you probably don’t want to spend 45 minutes filing a flight plan, rolling your plane out of its hangar, warming up the engine, and doing the mandatory pre-flight inspection—not to mention another 30 to 45 minutes at the destination airport tying down the plane and calling a cab.
The nifty thing about the Transition, of course, is that it’s designed to change from a plane into an automobile in about thirty seconds—meaning pilots will be able to drive right off the tarmac and onto the roadway without even having to get out. (The half-hour process of manually refitting the Aerocar for roadway driving was part of what killed Moulton Taylor’s dream, according to Dietrich.) At the flip of a switch, the Transition’s wings will fold up and the license plates will rotate into view. The vehicle’s engine, manufactured by Rotax, has a continuously variable transmission and a dual shaft that can power either the rear propeller during flight or a pair of front wheels on the road (top speed: 80 miles per hour).
Terrafugia (the name comes from the Latin terra, for Earth, and fugere, for “escape”) isn’t marketing the Transition to drivers as a replacement for their automobiles—which is part of the reason the company doesn’t like to call the product a flying car. Rather, the vehicle is for … Next Page »