First Flight Brings Terrafugia “A New Level of Credibility,” Says CEO Dietrich

3/18/09Follow @wroush

After Terrafugia’s heavily attended press conference this morning announcing the maiden flight of the company’s drivable aircraft, the Transition, I buttonholed founder and CEO Carl Dietrich for a one-on-one interview. He said the flight, which took place on March 5, is probably “the biggest single milestone” that Terrafugia could have achieved—and that the company is now in a strong position to raise more money as it continues with testing and development of its “flying car” and eventually moves toward manufacturing.

If venture or private-equity investors don’t come through, Dietrich says the company has good leads on “a couple” of possible corporate investors. Interestingly, Dietrich says it’s not clear yet whether the Transition will actually be manufactured in Massachusetts. The company has “proposals from all around the country” for siting its manufacturing facilities—but for now, the company’s modest garage in Woburn, MA, will do, he says.

Here’s the full interview:

Xconomy: Having reached this goal, how do you feel now about the prospects for real long-term success? Do you feel like you’ve cleared a big barrier, gotten over a hump?

Carl Dietrich: It’s definitely a big barrier. It’s the first question everyone asks—”Has it flown yet?” And it brings a new level of credibility to the company to say, “Yes, it has flown.” We have proven that we can build a vehicle in this configuration. This is a completely new configuration, that flies, that drives. So from that perspective, it is probably the biggest single milestone in the overall development of the company. There are lots of little milestones. But the first flight of the first vehicle—that is a big one. That is kind of the biggest one.

Terrafugia's Transition roadable aircraftX: So, following on that, do you feel like this puts you in a better position for going back out and raising more investment when the time comes? I’m assuming you need to ramp up the scale of everything to start manufacturing”?

CD: Absolutely. We do feel it puts us in a better position. That was actually part of our plan, to wait until the first flight and then go back out and hit the dirt and see what’s coming, see what we can come up with. That is part of the plan for the coming months, to start moving that process forward and see if we can get interest on the institutional investment side. And if we can’t, we’ve actually got a couple of good corporate leads. Who knows where those could go.

X: Do you think that you’ll actually build the production vehicles here in Massachusetts, or haven’t you decided that yet?

CD: It really hasn’t been determined at this point. Obviously I have selfish reasons for not wanting to move. But the bottom line is still the bottom line. We’ve gotten proposals from all around the country, and actually overseas, to do manufacturing. And we don’t know yet what we’re going to do. There are a lot of different things to weigh in the decision. At this time it doesn’t benefit us to make that decision. We are going to be in development for another couple of years before we really need a lot more room. Or at least, more than a year of additional time before we need a lot more space. And there is no advantage to us committing to someplace right now until we actually are close. In the meantime we will hopefully just continue to build the company’s credibility, so that people can say, “Hey, if they keep going they really are going to create hundreds of jobs,” and what’s that worth? So that’s what we’re looking to do right now.

X: Do you anticipate having a series of more public events, public flights, with journalists present, eventually?

CD: Eventually. When that will be, I can’t make any commitments at this point. We are testing this vehicle at Plattsburgh International Airport, which is actually a TSA-controlled field. So we actually had to go get badged, which was a multi-week process. We had to go through a training program, in order to get out onto the grounds, and then our camera crew, which couldn’t go through that training, the documentary crew that is following us, they actually had to get escorted out onto the field, and somebody has to sit there and wait with them, as they are out there filming the vehicle.

X: So somebody is making a documentary? Is it WGBH or somebody?

CD: No, it’s actually an independent film crew. A couple of our investors are producers, so they’ve actually been following us from the beginning. They are going to have a nice product that they’ll be able to leverage. It’s a win-win.

X: Why did you pick Plattsburgh—I mean, why that airport?

CD: A couple of reasons. The biggest one is that it’s an old B-52 bomber base. Phil [Meteer, the test pilot for the first flight] talked about how for this Phase 1 of testing, where you just want to take off and touch down, you want as long a runway as possible. Ideally we would be out on the salt flats in southern California. But we can’t afford to haul the whole team out to southern California to do testing.

X: So these are really long runways.

CD: These are two-mile-long runways. This is like an alternative landing site for the space shuttle. We can take off, go down the runway a mile, and then land it. And at any time we can set it down. So it’s ideal from that perspective, because it just gives us a lot more freedom to do whatever we need to do. It’s also nice because there is not a lot of traffic at that airport. There are a few scheduled flights each day, but it’s not like testing at Logan or Hanscom or anything like that. Even Hanscom is crazy busy, there’s no way we could test there.

So the FAA, when they—it’s a back and forth thing with the FAA. When they give you an airworthiness certificate at the beginning for an experimental aircraft, they put restrictions, geographic restrictions, on where you can do your test flying, because the vehicle is unproven. And so right now the vehicle is restricted to operate within a 50 or 100 nautical mile radius of Plattsburgh, and we have a couple of other alternative airports that we can go to. Once we have flown enough hours on the aircraft, and we have mitigated the risks sufficiently that the FAA agrees, they will say, “Okay, we will lift those restrictions.” And then you could fly to Hanscom, or you could fly to Oshkosh, or whatever, and do a big show. Right now, we don’t know when that’s going to be yet. It’s too early. We haven’t even looked at all the data we’ve gotten back from these latest test flights.

X: And this is all new—you’re having to negotiate these understandings from scratch, basically.

CD: Exactly. So it’s a process and we’re taking each step at a time. But we are reasonably confident. We have already started designing the next prototype, and we’re reasonably confident we can have that one flying by the end of 2010. And that one may be the one that goes through the certification testing program. This one is not. This one is just for us to learn lessons from. The next one may be. It will certainly go through the test program, and then depending on the results of that test program, we may do one more prototype, or the next product may be the first delivery.

X: So this is the plane that flew, or is this a prototype?

CD: This is the plane that flew. This is the only one that exists right now.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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