Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An important moment in the history of aviation doubled as a milestone in the history of motoring in early March when a small, privately held corporation successfully tested its first “roadable aircraft” — a roundabout way of saying “flying car.”

The vehicle, known as the Transition, looks somewhat akin to a futuristic Volkswagen Beetle but features wings and a propeller at the rear.

The test took place March 5 on a runway at Plattsburgh International Airport in New York, where the Transition flew a short distance before landing on the same stretch of tarmac. The flight lasted only about 30 seconds but was enough to confirm the vehicle’s reliability. The test pilot, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Phil Meteer, said he was satisfied with the vehicle’s smooth handling.

Terrafugia, the company that developed the Transition, is convinced the vehicle can handle more sophisticated flight tests.

“We will continue to test the current prototype, both on the ground and in the air,” says Richard Gersh, Terrafugia vice president of business development.

“Concurrently, the engineers are designing the next vehicle, the pre-production prototype. Our test pilot and the leadership team have now developed a formal test protocol.”

The flying car has been a stock image in science fiction, from “Blade Runner” to “The Jetsons,” ever since the first airplane was flown by the Wright brothers in 1903. Several have been designed over the years, but none has managed to get off the ground, mostly because of lack of funding.

The first known attempt at such a vehicle, the Curtiss Autoplane, was built in 1917. This aluminum contraption failed to fly but reportedly took a few small hops in the air.

The post-World War II economic boom saw a number of more sophisticated ventures. Robert E. Fulton Jr. was the first to try to adapt a plane for use as a car, rather than the other way around, but despite his initiative, Mr. Fulton couldn’t find a suitable financial backer for his 1946 Airphibian.

A 1970 design, the Aerocar, received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration but lost its funding during the 1970s oil crisis.

Those early experiments weren’t fruitless, however, for they demonstrated that flying cars were a possibility.

The Transition had its genesis about five years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Terrafugia was set up two years later to further develop the concept.

“The idea was developed in 2004 by five grad students,” Mr. Gersh explains. “Carl Dietrich experimented with the design for a roadable aircraft, obtained initial support from MIT and started the company in 2006.”

The company has 10 full-time employees and is backed by private investors.

Because the Transition is classed as a light sport aircraft, owners will need only a sport-pilot certificate to fly it. Those certificates are easier to obtain than the private-pilot certificate, and a Transition-specific course may be offered in the future.

“We felt that the new FAA light sport aircraft/sport-pilot certificate gave a company the opportunity to bring a small plane to market for a significantly lower cost than a certified aircraft such as a Cessna 172,” Mr. Gersh says.

With a 100-horsepower Rotax 912S engine, the Transition flies at more than 115 mph, covering a maximum distance of about 450 miles before it needs refueling. A safety cage, crumple zone and full-vehicle parachute are the craft’s chief safety features.

The Transition turns from a plane into a car simply by folding back its wings, a process that takes about 30 seconds. With the wings folded, the vehicle is the size of a standard car and fits neatly into a garage.

As a car, it has front-wheel drive with a top speed of 65 mph and runs on unleaded gasoline.

If the Transition’s flight is hampered by bad weather, the pilot can land at the nearest airport and continue by road, giving the Transition one important advantage over regular light aircraft.

The Transition will be marketed to pilots who want the option to drive rather than to motorists who wish to take off in midcommute - so don’t expect a “Jetsons”-type scenario with flying cars whizzing around the sky or any quick solution to the problem of traffic congestion.

The company is taking pre-orders for the vehicle and estimates it will be available commercially by 2011. About 40 orders have been received so far.

The Transition is expected to cost nearly $200,000 - about the same as a new Rolls-Royce - and no doubt the price will decrease with time and market competition. Although Terrafugia was the first to succeed in testing a flying car, competitors are hot on its tail. One Dutch company claims to be developing a machine something like a cross between a gyrocopter and a motorcycle.

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