Thursday, April 19, 2012

*Stuff* We Should Make Special Edition: Flying Cars Vs. Flying Pigs

 Oh, silly people from the 1950’s and your wacky forward-thinking concepts and ideas...  
Seriously, what happened to the flying car thing?  Was all that just the product of some post-WWII affluent-lifestyle-thinking?  Were we all just so mesmerized by DuPont plastics and Avon and Cadillac and everyone else in the realm of making things that looked so shiny and new, we were convinced we had reached the future a little farther down the road than we really had?  Did the atom bomb, which was supposed to spur the imaginations of the masses in developing technology and products beyond our wildest dreams, wind up stunting us as creative in only weapons of warfare and clever budget tricks? 

Or were we just not smart enough to become a nation of pilots (which is a shame, because I rock the Aviators almost as hard as Beckham.)?

If it only came down to the latter, that may be an issue in the makings of being resolved.  Terrafugia, based just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, is a firm made up of aeronautic engineers, business majors, but all of them private pilots.  Their “About Us” portion of the website introducing the staff shows how passionate they are about their work. CEO/CTO and founder Carl Dietrich received his private pilot license when he was seventeen.  Even the VP of Sales, Cliff Allen, characterizes himself in his online bio as an “aviation nut” who “owns a 1949 Piper Clipper, which he is restoring.”  (I have no idea what the significance is either, but it is a pretty sweet little plane). 

The point being, these guys understand the intricate nuances of flying, most importantly that they’re waaay more difficult than doing a K-Turn in your Chevy Tahoe.  This is why their prototype- the Transition- a plane valued at $279,000 with fold-up wings that enable it to legally drive on roads, might be one of the best models out there of a flying car with some semblance of a chance to be mass-marketed.  In a profile of the Transition from the Economist, Dietrich himself explains how modern navigation systems have resolved much of the issue of common knowledge:

“Whereas once a pilot needed to know how to triangulate his position using ground-based radio beacons, portable GPS units and altimeters can now do the job. ‘There are now off-the-shelf systems that can give you the same kind of instrumentation capabilities as an airliner,’ says Mr Dietrich. As a result, although there are restrictions on flying at night or through bad weather, it is possible for someone to get a Lite-Sport licence with just 20 hours’ flying experience—less time than many people spend learning to drive.” – The Economist, Technology Quarterly: What Happened To the Flying Car?

That “Lite-Sport” phrase refers to the latest category created by the FAA 8 years ago to include small private aircraft; a move that actually resulted in an easier path for individuals obtaining pilot licenses.  This, in turn, has created a new market for small plane manufacturing, and since many pilots flying this specific craft tend to have to land it at airfields farther away from areas with easy access to public transportation, the idea of a plane being able to take you up in the air, down on the ground and straight to your driveway/hotel room/underground silo-converted-lair-where-you-do-God-knows-what, really appeals to this demographic.  

Of course, no matter how great the idea sounds, business-minded individuals who spend a ridiculous amount of money to fly by their own means tend to be a bit more practical when it comes to purchasing their next/only plane.  And though the Transition has been proven to work in flight tests,  that doesn’t necessarily mean its potential customer base believes the flying car is an actual next step in the evolution of mass transportation.  

Take Loren Gallagher of Hemet, California, for example. Mr. Gallagher has been flying private planes ever since he got his pilot license at El Monte Airport in 1969. An aviator at heart, Mr. Gallagher found a way to use his hobby to his advantage in the resort management business. He flies for business as well as recreation and has flown to airports as far south as Baja California (that’s Mexico for all you Eastern Seaboarders) and as far north as Anchorage (That’s Alaska for all you Lower 48-ers). When I interviewed Loren about bringing back the ol’ flying cars’ “Manifest Destiny”, he was kind enough to bring me back down to Earth a bit (pun so very much intended):

“I have mixed feelings about mixing "road" and "sky" vehicles into one package. If something happens mechanically to my car, it rolls to stop and I can step out. If something happens to my airplane while flying, the outcome might not be as benign. I remain somewhat skeptical about the constant transformation from car to aircraft to car. Sooner or later, those moving parts will be compromised, not handled properly, damaged by another auto, and you may not understand the consequences until airborne when problems have bigger potential consequences. “

You’ll notice, Loren’s concerns revolve not around the difference between navigation in the air versus on the ground, but rather, how operational changes in the plane’s make-up are going to affect the actual flying-in-the-air part. With all the new innovations in development, for the customer, it still comes down to that timeless nugget of truth: “I’m thousands of feet up in the air and I don’t want to die in this thing.” His concern of the hybrid vehicle being damaged by other cars on the road is totally valid as well, and not an opinion lost on the companies investing in the concept. Rob Bulaga, president of Trek Aerospace of Folsom, California- which has designed its own flying car model- tells the Economist in the above interview, “I don’t want to see this [prototype] in the hands of everybody, because I have seen what everybody drives like.” Yup, so have I. Can you imagine a million of these guys a mile above you every day?

Back to Loren:

“I've been watching the Terrafugia[‘s product] with interest. It strikes me as a novelty and not able to complete with ‘real’ airplanes…An hour or two roaming the pages of Trade-A-Plane and you can fund hundreds of airplanes that will do far more than the Terrafugia at a fraction of the price. I'm still not convinced that the ability to park it in your home garage is a sufficiently large selling point. I could be wrong and, candidly, I hope I'm wrong. I love innovation in aviation and have been a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association for many years. The experimental aviation enthusiasts are directly responsible for most of the truly great changes in aviation design and technology that we've witnessed over the last decade.”

So while Loren’s gracious and understanding in the necessity of pushing design and technology, he’s right; there’s a lot of work to do here before manufacturing even thinks of stepping in. Aviation enthusiasts and vets like Loren are pretty stone-set in why they like to fly and how they view it in their life. It usually comes down to one key thing: solace. Every pilot I ever met enjoys private flying for that very reason; its element of privacy, of being away from the world. Creating an infrastructure in the sky that’s similar to what we already have on the ground? That’s kind of exactly the opposite of what aviation nuts want (hell, I drive on the freeways of Los Angeles daily, it’s the opposite of what I want too). Still, there are those out there who have devoted their entire lives to this version of the future. Dr. Paul Moller, of Moller Enterprises, has been designing, refining, and redefining his Skycar since he first got one to fly in 1989. MARCO Industries in Huntsville, Alabama has been designing a car called the SkyRider X2R. It’s designed to take off vertically, meaning it also uses propellers and nacelles. However, it also takes into account the need to divorce the pilot from the burden of delicate maneuvering by coming with a navigation system based on GPS satellites similar to the Transition’s.

Listen, change makes us all apprehensive. Change can be scary. Change is always messy. But with the world’s populations skyrocketing like never before, change is obviously necessary. We need serious new thinking to address serious issues, and in the grand scheme of things, maybe the air above us hasn’t been utilized as properly as it could. Daring to imagine made the US stand out as a nation; why stop now?

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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