A group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained engineers is trying to go where no corporation has gone before: building a profitable business selling flying cars.
The Terrafugia Transition seats two and can take off and land from more than 5,000 public U.S. airfields. It can be driven on any road and runs on the same gasoline as high-performance cars. So far, the company said, 95 people have put down at least $10,000 to reserve one of the $279,000 planes. Depositors include pilots and the wealthy in search of the latest toy.
Whether the flying car gets off the ground or not, it’s a reminder -- amid all the talk of mileage standards and profit margins -- that cars have always been about dreams, from Marty McFly’s DeLorean to autos with propellers that turned into boats. Indeed, Carl Dietrich, Terrafugia’s founder and chief executive officer, has dreamed about this since he watched reruns of “The Jetsons,” the cartoon where George Jetson commuted to his job in a flying car.
An aeronautical engineer and pilot, Dietrich is also practical. It wasn’t until 2004, when the Federal Aviation Administration lowered the barrier for getting a pilot’s license and created a new category of aircraft, that he decided there was business potential.
‘I Want It’
“The sense I’ve gotten in having conversations is, ‘The flying car is something I was promised a long time ago and I want it,’” Dietrich said. Customers “don’t care about practical arguments. They need to have it as part of a collection. Our long-run goal is to make this not just a novelty, but something really practical.”
The Transition will be on display at the New York auto show, which opens to the public tomorrow, with a special offer to reserve one for a $2,500 non-refundable deposit.
Dietrich says eventually selling 500 Transitions per year is an optimistic yet realistic goal.
“There’s no guarantee it will be a good investment of my time and energy and my investors’ time and energy,” he said. “But at least I can show, ‘Hey, it might be possible.’”
Flying cars have long captured the imagination, including a movie and play based on “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” the children’s book by Ian Fleming.
One of the Transition’s biggest obstacles is that no predecessor has ever succeeded commercially and become an “everyman’s airplane,” said Dom Pisano, curator in the aeronautics division of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.
“Practicality is one huge reason,” Pisano said. “The aerodynamics for automobiles are very different than for airplanes and we’ve ended up with halfway measures in both categories, and that’s a big part of the reason they’ve failed.”
The museum’s collection includes three previous flops: a Stout Skycar from the 1930s, a Fulton Airphibian from the 1940s and a Waterman Aerobile from the 1950s.
“The idea has had a long history, but not one of ultimate long-term success,” Pisano said.
In the 1930s, inventor Harold Pitcairn developed an AC-35 Autogiro and sold 19 of them. It was more aircraft than car, said John Brown, who runs a website devoted to flying vehicles called RoadableTimes.com and is publishing a book later this year called “All The World’s Flying Cars” about the history of the category.
In the 1940s, a Connecticut man named Robert Fulton created the Airphibian and finished eight of them with several more partially built before arguments among his investors scuttled the project, Brown said.
General Dynamics Corp. was planning production of 160,000 flying cars called Convair until a crash during a 1947 test flight frightened the public and dissuaded many would-be inventors for decades, Brown said.
Better engineering, lighter materials and engines with more powerful thrust-to-weight ratios have given flying cars renewed viability, with about 35 models in existence today globally, Brown said. That doesn’t include other vehicles such as flying bicycles, powered parachutes and gyroscope or helicopter models.
“We’ve sent man to the moon, kids in school can Skype from Europe to the U.S. and we can cure most diseases,” Brown said. “Putting wheels on a light airplane isn’t that hard, you would think, but it’s actually very hard.”
Brown is also working with a German company on a roadable aircraft called the Carplane.
Not for Everyone
“I think I’ll own a flying car in my lifetime,” said Brown, 49. “I don’t know which year, but I think it will happen.”
The Transition, which will require a sport pilot’s license, isn’t for everyone. Woburn, Massachusetts-based Terrafugia said its target market includes hedge-fund managers and other wealthy Wall Street types. Also among the intended customers are frequent fliers taking short trips for work or pleasure who are frustrated by the cost and hassle of owning a one-dimensional vehicle.
A press of a button folds the wings -- once at the hull and once in mid-span.
“This isn’t so much the flying car we were told about in ‘The Jetsons,’” said Dietrich, 34, who started saving for a pilot license at age 8 and earned it at 17, as soon as he was old enough. “This is an airplane that has the potential to be more convenient and useful for pilots.”
Visual Flight Rules
Dietrich incorporated in 2006. The company hasn’t received money from institutional or venture investors, he said.
The Terrafugia Transition is designated a light sport aircraft, and it won’t be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. That means it will be restricted to visual flight rules. It can fly only in daylight and in clear skies.
The Transition couldn’t enter Class A or B airspace around major commercial airports unless equipped with devices that help air-traffic controllers monitor a plane’s location and the pilot would need a higher-level license with more flying experience to enter airspace around even medium-sized airports, said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety and crash investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.
‘Different Skill Sets’
“There isn’t much relationship between driving a car and flying a plane -- they’re two completely different skill sets,” Waldock said. “I get nervous when you try to mix hybrid things like this.”
The prototype plane has flown 28 times, Dietrich said. Two production prototypes recently began testing, and production is scheduled to start later this year, he said.
With the wings up, the vehicle is about the size of Honda Motor Co.’s Odyssey minivan. It will fit in the garages of most homes, Dietrich said.
And, in fact, even with a flying car, miles per gallon does matter, so: Dietrich said the vehicle gets 35 miles (56 kilometers) per gallon on the road and 20 miles per gallon while flying at 100 miles an hour.
-- Editors: John Brecher, Bill Koenig