Terrafugia Achieves Maiden Flight—Live Blogging from the Boston Museum of Science

3/18/09Follow @wroush

[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.”

Terrafugia Transition's first flightAngel-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, Terrafugia test pilotLive blogging from the press conference:

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.”

Q&A:

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.”

Terrafugia's TransitionWho 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.

Scroll down for videos.

Terrafugia Transition—First Flight, Camera A

Terrafugia Transition—First Flight, Camera B

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

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  • http://winamp Gordon Rhodes

    WOW,I want one.

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  • Matt

    Now they just need to make a 4 seater version so that the 1950′s dream of taking the family vacation in the flying car will FINALLY become reality!

    WOOO!

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  • http://www.entrepreneursworkshop.org Michael Russell

    Good. Now, How Much?
    What is the flight envelope?
    What computer navigation and aviation equip?
    Payload Cap.?

  • J.L.Lee

    As a retired commercial turbine aircraft pilot, (B-727 series – Dc-9 – Lear series) all we need is a bunch of people who can barely drive responsibly, possessing more money than sense, screaming around in the national airspace system.

    It wasn’t a computer that landed in the Hudson, it was a well trained pilot. It’s difficult enough trying to maneuver and avoid the “Cessna Flack” on a climb or descent without compounding the problem. I would hope they would be restricted to 2000′AGL and out of high aircraft traffic areas.
    A vehicle better named Kamakaze!

    We will soon be facing an influx into the NAS by the so called VLJ’s (Very Light Jets) that will put more incompetents in command of a 450mph aircraft and allow just about anyone to buy into the personal jet circus who can afford the price of admission.

    Shit happens fast when your going 7-8 miles a minute; you better know how to aviate, navigate, and communicate quickly and precisely or end up aluminum plating a mountain side somewhere.

    There’s no such thing as a “fender bender” at altitude!

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  • george

    To MR J.L. Lee

    You sir are possible one of the most arrogant individuals I have seen in the flying community. As a retired commercial pilot you somehow feel that you can speak for the rest of the pilots.

    There are over 600000 private pilots in the US and only a very small percentage are commercial, but the rest are still very well trained and very responsible.

    I find it interesting that your attitude is what you stated, I guess as a bus driver you have never bothered to fly for fun.

    You also might want to look up the statistics, there are far more fatalities caused by commercial crashes than by small planes.

    The “Cessna flack” – I don’t even know how to respond to that, try flying a small plane sir, and you might begin to think of the big planes as the issue.

    Since there are vastly more small airports and small airplanes out there you might want to rethink your prejudices.

    While drivers tend to be an undisciplined group, pilots are not, anybody that is willing to put in the time, and money to get their private or sport ticket deserves better than your diatribe.

    All I can say is I am very glad that a curmudgeon like you is out of my airspace.

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  • john

    J.L.Lee

    You are an ignorant idiot that I am happy to hear is retired. Commercial pilots like yourself that believe that only commercial pilots are competent stink like the manure you are filled with.

    I will agree that commercial pilots have more experience, but there are almost as many private/small plane flights as there are commercial and you don’t see small craft crashing everyday.

    Do you think the FAA will make the process of becoming a pilot easier due to the availability of craft like the Terrafugia?

    As to your comment “Cessna Flack” it only shows how much of an A hole you truly are.
    As a Aircraft controller at a MAJOR international airport on the easy coast I communicate with hundreds of pilots everyday and I know first hand that all commercial pilots are not the cream of the crop.
    Oh yeah I also spent 8 years in the U.S. Navy as an (AIC)Air Intercept controller, gained my single engine at 19 years old, I am 35 and have been flying for 16 years and love it. Commercial pilots do not OWN the sky remember that I know pilots with your mentality believe that but you are wrong.

  • http://wordpress.pocosin.com Counsel

    I am not a pilot, although I have thought about it a few times in the past. With all due respect to pilots everywhere, it isn’t neurosurgery.

    With all due respect to neurosurgeons, training and experience might make anyone a great neurosurgeon.

    It is your attitude about “those uneducated” (fill in your word here) that is the problem. You may be better trained with more experience, but you are still making assumptions that speak more about you than those who want to own the new “flying car.”

    I would think everyone would agree that the more education (in any field) that reaches “the masses” is a good thing…

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  • Eric Bohn

    They stated that the only intended market for this is people looking to fly between airports. This is not an ultralight aircraft, and would no doubt require much stricter piloting licence requirements as the vehicle would most likely be flying in the same regulated airspace as small single engine craft, and at the same speeds.

    Basically, this car is like a cessna piper cub that you can take the wings off of and use on the road in very little time.

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  • Boeing pilots are like bus drivers to me

    to me professional plane pilots are more trained than private ones. That does not mean they are better or more important.

    As an analogy, bus, truck and taxi drivers are not better or more important than other drivers.

    And surely they can be more annoying and arrogant like Mr Lee (notice how he uses 2 initials J.L. to show he’s educated)

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  • E. Greenwald

    I’m not a pilot, just an old retired EE. But my respect for the opinion of someone offering strong criticism is greatly deminished if the writer cannot differentiate between the word “your” and the contraction “you’re”. Someone should send Mr. Lee a copy of the excellent book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. Mr. Lee will find an example of his usage of the word “your” on page 53, under the heading “Plain Illiteracy”.

  • JohnnyK

    Honestly I think that this is awsome… Its the new thing out. This is going to be the near future. I have a 1965 thunderbird, and looking at that and the newer cars out, its a big change. People, ease up a bit! Look at this persons creation. Its amazing to have an object that can be in air also can be used on the road in minutes. Imagine your seeing the first car ever made.. then there are different productions. And if you are an owner of a car. What your going to say “no they shouldn’t make new cars because they have so many and that would cause many accidents.” No thats not right. Be happy for this amazing creation and give him credit for what he came up with. Im sure if this was a production, they would make rules and regulations inorder to fly, but all I have to say is that “I WANT THIS.” I love to fly and I cant imagine having one in my garage. Its just amazing… thats my opinion, Terrafugia is a beautiful thing that was make. Good job and hope you come up with other great ideas. JohnnyK

  • http://www.zybez.net Rabos Kendal

    I can’t wait for a large auto company to follow suit. A company like Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Dodge, Ford, Chrysler, BMW, etc.

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  • Tim D-T

    “4 seater version”
    It’s currently designed under “light sport aircraft” rules, which means only 2 seats are allowed. A four-seater would have to meet all of the certification requirements of Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 23, which would probably be tough/impossible from an engineering perspective, while still being light enough to perform well.

  • alf

    que no mamen, es una avioneta esa chingadera

  • James

    As soon as Terrafugia begins to sell the transition, I will purchase one. I am holding out for the next model. I imagine that they have another one in the works currently. I still have time to wait, I still need to receive my private pilots certificate. So, until I get that I won’t be purchasing anything yet. I sure am very happy for Terrafugia’s success. Best of luck to them, and thank you for this great creation! :)

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  • medved

    How is the company going to distribute Terrafugia?

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