Terrafugia's Flying Car

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Flying car aims to take wing in the commercial market

The history of the flying-car genre is fraught with flops, but Terrafugia Inc. hopes its Transition model is safe and simple enough for today’s consumers.

April 19, 2012. By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

The Jetsons had one, and Fred MacMurray flew one in “Flubber.” Novelist Ian Fleming included one in his children’s book “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” James Bond’s nemesis Francisco Scaramanga used one as a getaway vehicle in the film “The Man With the Golden Gun.”

Now, a Massachusetts company hopes to commercially market a flying car — although “driving plane” might be a more accurate description.

At last week’s New York International Auto Show, Terrafugia Inc. of Woburn, Mass., unveiled the Transition, a two-seat aircraft with foldable wings. Pending regulatory approvals — which by no means are assured — the company plans to sell the contraption by 2013 for $279,000.

“You can pull out of your garage, fill up with 91 octane at a gas station, drive to the nearest airport, unfold your wings, perform a preflight check and take off,” said Terrafugia Chief Executive Carl Dietrich.

So far, he said, about 100 people have put down $10,000 deposits to be among the first buyers.

The idea of a flying car may seem like a pipe dream, but the company says modern technology, such as GPS devices, air bags and high-strength composite material, has made the Transition safer for the consumer. The company even offers a vehicle parachute system.

Terrafugia is an aerospace company founded by pilots and engineers from MIT. The company name is Latin for “escape the earth.” Terrafugia now has 24 employees.

Dietrich said he had dreamed of developing the technology ever since childhood when he saw George Jetson zoom to and from his job at Spacely Space Sprockets in a flying car on the television cartoon show “The Jetsons.”

It became a reality last month, when a production prototype of the Transition completed its first successful flight for eight minutes at Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Terrafugia isn’t the first company to try to get a car off the ground. For more than a century, daredevil aviators and freethinking engineers have attempted the concept.

But the development of a flying car — some even backed with well-heeled resources and financing — has been fraught with disappointments.

American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who designed the aluminum Autoplane in 1917, is often credited as the inventor of the flying car. While it was capable of short bunny hops, it never could achieve sustained flight.

Later in 1926, Henry Ford introduced a 15-foot-long aircraft he dubbed the “Model T of the Air,” the Ford Flivver. The single-seat midget plane was flown by just two men: Charles Lindbergh and test pilot Harry Brooks.

Ford stopped production on the Flivver after building three or four, according to a website from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., after Brooks crashed and died in the ocean off the coast of Melbourne, Fla.

The ConvAirCar flew for more than an hour above San Diego in 1947. Designer Henry Dreyfuss bolted a 36-foot wing and an aircraft engine onto a four-seat fiberglass car body for aviation company Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corp. But it, too, was canceled after a fatal crash.

In the 1970s, Henry Smolinski of Oxnard grabbed a Cessna Skymaster wing and attached it to a Ford Pinto and called it the Mizar. During a test flight in 1973, he and the pilot died.

“Yeah, the track record isn’t so good,” said Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. “If something goes wrong on your car, you can ease to the side of the road — not so much if something goes wrong in the air.”

Kendall pointed out, however, that in the 1930s, Santa Monica engineer Waldo Waterman successfully designed a small plane with a transmission drive system that operated the propeller in the air and the rear wheels on the ground.

The Aerobile had automobile parts from companies such as Studebaker and Ford to keep the price down. According to the website for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where the Aerobile currently hangs, it received Federal Aviation Administration certification in the experimental category in 1957, but a market for the vehicle never materialized. The Taylor Aerocar was another prototype that was certified for flight in 1956.

More recently, Moller International in Davis has been working on a Skycar, a vertical takeoff vehicle in development for the last decade.

Bruce Calkins, general manager of Moller, said the Skycar recently completed its initial hover tests. The company plans to have FAA certified production for the Skycar by 2014.

Terrafugia’s Transition has popped up on the FAA’s radar as well. Under current regulations, the aircraft falls under a “light sport aircraft” designation.

“These are small, simple, low-performance, low-energy aircraft that have a number of operating limitations,” a spokesman for the agency said. “The FAA must determine if the Transition can be safely flown by a sport pilot.”

The designation lowers the barrier for entry, Dietrich said. Getting a sport pilot’s license is much cheaper and takes less time than getting a private pilot’s license.

But the flying car has to meet aviation regulations and federal motor vehicle safety standards. So Terrafugia’s Transition must win approval with the FAA for airworthiness certification to fly. It also has to thread through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to obtain authorization to operate on roads.

Clearing these hurdles is going to be difficult, said Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally during an interview with The Times, saying a “flying car is a bad idea.”

He said that the engineering requirements for a vehicle traveling for any distance on the ground and one that flies are too disparate and complex to be combined in one platform.

Mulally should know. Before getting the top job at Ford, he headed Boeing Co.’s commercial aircraft operations.

Still, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said there are approximately 400 patents and applications for flying car technology.

What separates Terrafugia’s Transition from the rest is simplicity of design, Dietrich said.

The Transition can take off or land at any public use general aviation airport with at least 2,500 feet of runway. This represents the majority of the more than 5,000 public airports across the nation.

Dietrich acknowledged that the high price tag might be a turnoff for some. “For a certain segment of the population,” he said, “this really could be a fantastic product.”

william.hennigan@latimes.com