Growing up, James Bond movies were my favorites, and high among them was The Man With the Golden Gun. I don’t remember when I first saw it, but what stuck most in my impressionable young mind was a car. No, not one of Bond’s tricked-out sports cars with ejection seats or retractable machine guns, but a rather unlikely object of male desire, an AMC Matador.
I remember Bond driving in hot pursuit of a bad guy in a Matador. Temporarily giving Bond the slip, the villain pulled into a conveniently located garage/hangar and quickly strapped most of an airframe, complete with jet engine, onto the roof of the car. When Bond arrived on the scene moments later, he looked on in frustration as his nemesis took off and escaped. While I didn’t think much of the Matador itself, the idea of having a flying car was, to me, just about the greatest thing since sliced bread. I imagined that someday, in the unthinkably far-off year of 2000, maybe I would have one myself.
There have been many attempts over the years to produce flying cars (or roadable airplanes, if you prefer), with one of the most successful being the 1949 Taylor Aerocar. Its designer realized that one of the problems inherent in the concept was what to do with all the extra airplane parts when you just wanted to drive around. His solution was to design the tail, which included a pusher propeller unit, and the strut-supported wings to disassemble as a module and be stackable in a trailer arrangement, which would then be towed behind the Aerocar. That ostensibly prevented the vehicle from being tethered to a particular airport. A handful of Aerocars were built and today they are mainly museum pieces, while one still flies on occasion.
At last month’s AOPA Summit in Hartford, Conn., I saw the soon-to-fly “next generation” prototype of the Terrafugia Transition, the latest version of a flying car. The Woburn, Mass.-based company flew a proof-of-concept version in 2009, and it expects to receive certification for the Transition as both a light sport airplane from the FAA and a fully capable automobile from the Department of Transportation (DOT).
Because the Transition must meet all federal automobile crash and safety requirements, its equipment includes turn signals, head and tail lights, all-wheel disk brakes, a reverse gear, tuned suspension, highway-rated tires and a license plate holder. Yet, it also mounts a pusher propeller between its twin tailbooms, and carries a full-aircraft parachute “under the hood,” where, in most cars, the engine sits.
To avoid having to disassemble the machine after flight, the manufacturer has designed its wings to fold up and to the sides of the vehicle, using an automated electric system. This takes just 20 seconds and requires no disconnection of wires or cables. Once rigged for road travel, the Transition, at less than 20 feet long and 90 inches wide, occupies approximately the same footprint as a monster-size SUV, so it could be parked in a driveway.
Due to all the extra equipment required to satisfy DOT automobile requirements, Terrafugia needed a special-weight exemption from the FAA to have the Transition, with an empty weight of 970 pounds, classified as a sport aircraft. The vehicle can seat two people, but you want to make sure you know exactly how much you and your passenger weigh before taking off for an extended joy ride, for in aircraft mode it has a usable load capacity of just 460 pounds. At my present weight, that wouldn’t leave much in the way of baggage, if I were to carry a similar-sized passenger. An optional air conditioning unit would further reduce that weight capacity by 20 pounds.
While Terrafugia officials declined to state exactly how fast the Transition would go on the ground, they did say that its 100-hp Rotax engine could propel it at highway speed. In the air, it is planned to cruise at a stately 93 knots. Burning five gallons of premium, unleaded gasoline per hour at cruise speed from its 23-gallon fuel tank, the roadable airplane is expected to have a range of 490 miles (not including how far you drive to get to the airport). On the highway, the vehicle gets a respectable 35 mpg.
Operating the Transition will require at least a sport pilot license, as well as a valid driver’s license, if you plan to drive it off-airport. Due to its dual certifications, the Transition will require both auto and aircraft insurance, and, of course, the appropriate periodic inspections for its ground and air abilities. I would love to see the look on my car mechanic’s face as I drove this into the garage for its annual motor vehicle inspection.
Terrafugia, which hopes to begin deliveries of the Transition by the end of next year, claims a three-year backlog for the multi-modal vehicle. But that’s OK with me. The Transition’s base price is $279,000 and I figure I’ll need at least that much time to save my pennies for one.
Hey, you just never know when that person you are chasing might decide to fly away.