Remember Dad George’s flying car from the Jetsons cartoon (and the cool little sound it made?). Well, it seems that the flying car isn’t so far fetched after all. Unfortunately, though, those of us looking for a work-around for L.A. traffic will have to wait quite a while. The industry and infrastructure aren’t anywhere near being ready for consumer use, but surprisingly, things are moving right along.
For example, Business Insider just published an article about Terrafugi’s Flying Car, the TF-X, which has a five-hundred mile range and will be developed over the next 8-12 years. Check out BI’s article to view a nifty Terrafugia video showing the TF-X in use. Or you can go directly to the video page on Terrafugia’s website. While you’re on the site, assuming you have an extra $279,000 lying around, you can also fill out the form to reserve a TF-X (there’s also a Terrafugia tee-shirt for $19 if you can’t swing the $279K).
A little more than five years ago, Terrafugia Inc.’s U.S. Patent Application No. 12/177862 for “Folding Wing Root Mechanism” published (now U.S. Patent No. 8210473). The specialized wing structure covered by the patent is applicable to what are known as “roadable aircraft,” or, if you’ve watched as many Jetsons cartoons as us, ‘flying cars.’ Apparently, designing a wing structure that could be stowed for the road, but is also secure enough for flying was a bit of a challenge. Terrfugia’s design is bifold hinge-type design that deviates from the locking pin systems of past designs and eliminates the need for sliding components in the wing root.
About a year after the Terrafugia application published, Lewis Blomeley’s U.S. Patent Application No. 12/687118 for a “Roadable Aircraft With Collapsible Wings and Ductless Fan” published (now U.S. Patent No. 8511603). Lewis notes that roadable aircraft aren’t new in concept, but that “there has yet to be one design, which has met with any significant commercial success or adaptation.” Lewis Blomeley’s patent is also a treasure trove of roadable aircraft history.
Courtesy of the Blomeley patent, we learned that aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss was the first to design a flying car, but the first flying car to actually fly successfully was built by Waldo Waterman. Waterman became associated with Curtiss while Curtiss was pioneering naval aviation at North Island on San Diego Bay in the 1910s. However, it wasn’t until Mar. 21, 1937 that Waterman’s Aerobile first took to the air. As Lewis explains,
[T]he Aerobile was a development of Waterman’s tailless aircraft, the “Whatsit.” It had a wingspan of 38 feet and a length of 20 feet 6 inches. On the ground and in the air, it was powered by a Studebaker engine. It could fly at 112 mph and drive at 56 mph. While an example of the Waterman Aerobile is now in the Smithsonian Air & Space museum, the design never became commercially successful.
In 1926, Henry Ford displayed an experimental single-seat airplane that he called the “Sky Flivver”. The project was abandoned two years later when a test flight crashed, killing the pilot. In 2001, Popular Science published a great article on the Sky Flivver project, which you can read here. While several designs (such as the Convair flying car and Molt Taylor’s Aircar) have flown, none have enjoyed commercial success and those that have flown are not widely known to the general public.
Another design, the Aerocar, “is a two-place aircraft with side-by-side seating, four wheels, high, unobtrusive wings, and a single Lycoming 0-320 engine mounted over the rear wheels.” Its cruise speed was 100 mph, and it initially sold for $25,000.
The idea for the “Aerocar” occurred to its designer, Moulton (Molt) Taylor, in 1946. During a trip to Delaware he met inventor Robert E. Fulton, Jr., and became captivated by the concept of Fulton’s roadable airplane, the “Airphibian.” Taylor immediately saw the weakness in the fixed, detachable wings of Fulton’s design, and set about building his prototype Aerocar with folding wings, which he completed in 1949. After a successful demonstration flight, Molt promoted the Aerocar at aircraft and auto shows and on TV. The Blomeley application also explains that Aerocars represent the only FAA certified airplane in history that could also drive on the highways. The Aerocar, however, was not a successful design in that it did not generate a profit or become widely adopted. As Lewis explains, “[the] Aerocar remains more of a curiosity than a practical roadable aircraft.”
The next design in the roadable aircarft industry, as explained in Lewis’ Blomeley’s patent would almost be comical if it wasn’t so tragic. Henry Smolinski’s “Mizar” was made by mating the rear end of a Cessna Skymaster with a Ford Pinto. It disintegrated during a test flight, and sadly, killed Smolinski and the pilot, Harold Blake.
The Blomeley patent also cites to many current-day ongoing roadable aircraft projects, like the Terrafugia “Transition” (which supposedly will sell for $178,000) and Samson Motorworks, LLC’s “SkyBike.” The SkyBike is a three-wheel concept with telescoping wings, that was introduced at AirVenture 2008. While it’s not clear if it’s the same model as the SkyBike, it seems that Samson’s project now carries the name, “Switchblade.” You can check out the SwitchBlade on the Samson website. According to the website, Samson plans on offering the SwitchBlade for $95,000. The SwitchBlade has a predicted top speed of 200 mph in the air, but you’ll need to drive it to an airport for take-off. You can watch the SwitchBlade in action in the videos on Samson’s website.
Lewis Blomeley’s own design comprises a roadable aircraft that could be registered and driven as a motorcycle on the roadways, but also flown as an Experimental Home Built, Light-Sport Aircraft, or Certified FAR 23 Aircraft. Blomeley’s design doesn’t require that any parts be “left behind” at the airport when configuring to roadable use or removing parts of the aircraft and towing them behind. The design’s two main features are a novel, foldable and collapsible wing and a ductless fan with a center-mounted extraction fan to maintain boundary layer attachment without resorting to a long fuselage.
Will flying cars be common in our lifetime? Difficult to know, but just imagine being able to fly over the traffic rather than sitting in it….