Terrafugia Achieves Maiden Flight—Live Blogging from the Boston Museum of Science
[Update, 2:30 p.m., March 18, 2009: We’ve just published an extensive followup interview with Carl Dietrich, Terrafugia’s founder and CEO.]
Ever since my first visit to Terrafugia’s Woburn, MA, warehouse last May to see the startup’s Transition “roadable aircraft,” I’ve been pestering CEO Carl Dietrich to clue us in about the craft’s first flight. He was always a bit cagey, saying that the maiden flight wouldn’t be announced in advance and that the press wouldn’t be invited, for safety and security reasons. (That’s understandable, I guess—I wouldn’t want me around either, if something went wrong.)
Well, true to Dietrich’s word, Terrafugia conducted its first flight in secrecy, at 7:40 a.m. on March 5. But it’s only revealing that fact to the world today, in a dramatic press conference taking place at this hour at the Boston Museum of Science, where a prototype of the Transition is on temporary exhibit. [I’m adding details from the press conference below, as well as videos of the first flight on the second page of this story.]
The first Transition flight lasted only 37 seconds and covered about 3,000 feet. It took place directly over the runway at Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, NY, a location selected because of its extremely long runway and low traffic. The flight was piloted by Phil Meteer, a retired Air Force colonel.
“With this achievement, Terrafugia has set the stage for personal aviation,” Dietrich said at the press conference.
Travel has now become “a hassle-free integrated air-land experience,” Dietrich added in a statement distributed at the conference. “It’s what aviation enthusiasts have been striving for since 1918”—the date of the first experiments with roadable aircraft.
Meteer was also the pilot for six subsequent test flights, including a more extensive spin around the Plattsburgh airport. “It was apparent to me from the moment of takeoff that I had control of a very stable aircraft,” Meteer said at the press conference. “I had a test plan…and after a minute I realized my daughter could do this, it was fun, anyone could do it.”
Angel-funded Terrafugia has been working on the Transition since 2006, when Dietrich, a 31-year-old with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for various cool inventions, including a pumpless rocket engine. He put the money into the company, which became a $10,000 runner-up in the 2006 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. From their Woburn facility, a nondescript former garage door factory, Dietrich’s team has been hard at work on the two-seat, four-wheeled, carbon-fiber-composite aircraft, which can fly up to 450 miles at 115 miles per hour and is distinguished by folding wings that ratchet out of the way when it’s on the ground. That makes the craft just 80 inches wide, narrow enough to tool down the highway—where it can go up to 65 mph and get 30 miles to the gallon.
The Transition isn’t designed to be anyone’s primary ground vehicle. (For the estimated $194,000 sticker price, early adopters would be better off buying a Tesla Roadster—they’d still have $85,000 left over.) Rather, Terrafugia is spinning the vehicle as a convenient option for pilots who want to be able to fly to any airport—say, Martha’s Vineyard—and then be able to drive to their final destination without having to rent a car separately.
It’s not clear how many potential customers fit that profile. But one key to Terrafugia’s business plan is that in 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration created a new class of pilot’s licenses, for planes that weigh under 1,320 pounds and fly slower than 138 miles per hour—so-called special light-sport aircraft. Getting a sport pilot certificate to fly one of these planes takes half as much training as qualifying for a traditional private pilot license, which could greatly expand the potential market for planes like the Transition.
Already more than 40 people have put down deposits of $10,000 each to hold their place in line for a Transition. Dietrich said at today’s conference that the first production craft will be ready for customers in 2011 (a year later than previously projected).
Terrafugia is a neologism from the latin words for “land” and “escape.”
Phil Meteer: “All seven landings were very smooth touchdowns. The cockpit has outstanding visibility of the runway environment.”
“Something made me want to take off again, so Carl had to chase after me in the chase truck.”
“Ninety percent of the total program risk is in the first flight and we’re past that, so Terrafugia has taken off in more ways than one.”
What’s next for Transition? Dietrich: Delivery of first vehicle will be in 2011. The manufacturing process is expected to create hundreds of jobs. “With this accomplishment Terrafugia is poised to usher in a new era of general aviation.”
Meteer: Vehicle has been through two rounds of wind tunnel testing but we have to validate it. “It will graduate when we’re convinced it’s performing as designed and ready for the next stage.”
Dietrich: “We have already begun design work on the next prototype.”
Meteer: “This design is very safe. Bring it back to the first airplane flight….there is risk. If you talk about fear — I think a bigger danger is that we wouldn’t do something like this out of fear. To me that is more dangerous than getting in there. Risks are things we can manage. We can label them, analyze risk, say ‘No unnecessary risk.’ We can show courage in the face of danger and engage in no recklessness. That’s why it took us 6 months of powered testing to get off the runway.”
Does it have a ballistic recovery system — a rocket deployed parachute? Dietrich: It does. “If you get into trouble you can pull a handle and the entire vehicle will be brought down safely.”
How much will it cost? Dietrich: “The anticipated purchase price is $194,000. We are accepting deposits. The aircraft can be reserved. There have been over 40 aircraft sold already.”
How many does the company have to sell to break even? “That’s proprietary.”
Who are the buyers? Dietrich: “Many are couples, many live in retirement communities and they see this as a recreational vehicle that allows them to visit their families.” Some business users. A mix of customers. International as well.
Does the propeller disengage on the ground? Dietrich: “Yes, it switches to wheel drive exclusively.”
What were the biggest challenges in developing this vehicle? Dietrich: “There are a lot of regulations that govern air traffic and a lot of regulations that govern pilots. We have a small team with limited resources and making sure that we abide by all those regulations was a significant challenges.”
Describe your feelings the first time you took it into the air? Meteer: “You realize that being in the at 100 mph is better than being on the runway. It was remarkably unremarkable. It was almost humorous. It flies like an airplane. There is another part of that — as a tester you learn to put your feelings aside. The feelings don’t really come out until after.”
Continue to page 2 for videos of the Transition’s first flight.