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Auto Pilots

What has four wheels and flies? The dream of a roadable airplane continues.

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The flight instructions went something like this: "It's easy. It practically flies itself. I'll tell you what to do as we go along."

In the summer of 1959, Moulton Taylor, with a little time on his hands and the zeal of a missionary, was seeking another convert. He'd given his student, a recent high school graduate named Ed Sweeney, the use of his Longview, Washington sod runway to fly radio-controlled model aircraft.

But this was no model. Nor was the four-wheel vehicle Sweeney steered down the runway strictly an airplane. Had Taylor stripped the craft of its wings and tail section, Sweeney could have signalled a couple of turns and driven into town, as Taylor sometimes did, on a head-turning jaunt to the grocery store.

With Taylor at his side, Sweeney left the ground at about 55 mph. "Okay, we're high enough," said Taylor. "Let's make a turn." Sweeney dialed the steering wheel and the Aerocar quickly responded. The landing was equally smooth. "Just drive it down the runway," said Taylor, "and when you're ready to stop, simply step on the brake." Sweeney enjoyed his brief drive in the sky, but his encounter with the Aerocar was not love at first flight. "It didn't mean all that much to me at the time," he admits. It would later.

Aviation historians consign the flying automobile to the oddity hangar, a niche reserved for the Spruce Goose, the autogiro, and other noble though quirky experiments. But if a flying car has yet to attain success, the idea of one is still very much alive. Last December NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia published a collection of papers on such topics as "The Advanced Personal Fixed-Wing Converticar," stating in an introduction that the advanced personal aircraft "may be right for the dawning of the new century."

"I see a real resurgence of interest," says Palmer Stiles, whose book From Wheels to Wings provides a patent-by-patent history of the flying automobile, or "roadable" aircraft. Of 76 patents granted between 1918 and 1993, 10 bear dates of 1989 and later. And, as Stiles knows, you don't need a patent to sketch designs or build models or sweat over a breakthrough concept in a garage. Stiles' own design, pursued as an ongoing student project at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, where he is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, proposes pivoting canard and main wings that overlap the car body for ground travel. Stiles calls it the CaRnard. Other enthusiasts, in the tradition of an earlier generation of roadable designs (see "To Build a Better Mousetrap," below) like the Curtiss Autoplane, the Waterman Arrowbile, the Fulton Airphibian, and Molt Taylor's Aerocar, have staked their claim to an ever shrinking realm of hybrid names: Aircar, AviAuto, Sky Car, even Roadrunner.

All have turned up in the pages of Roadable Aircraft, a three-year-old publication mailed sporadically from the Edmonds, Washington home of design engineer Ron Borovec. Borovec serves as an information clearinghouse, cheerleader, and sounding board for those bitten by the flying car bug. "It's myself and a staff of zero," he says. Like Stiles, Borovec detects an updraft of interest in this long-dreamed-of advance in transportation--a variation of the helicopter in every garage. In the last year, subscriptions have climbed to 350, and attendance at his roadable aircraft forums at the annual Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in has grown apace.

The need for such a dual-purpose vehicle looms greater than ever. Not only are roadways more congested with each passing year, but the airlines' hub-and-spoke system has, over many mid-length routes, actually increased travel times. But that's only part of what inspires flying car designers. As Chuck Berry sang in his 1956 recording "You Can't Catch Me," the ability to transform a car into a plane is liberating--freedom at the push of a button:

 

I bought a brand new Aeromobile.

Custom made, 'twas a flight de ville.

With a powerful motor and some highway wings,
Turn off the button and you will hear her sing.

Now you can't catch me. Baby, you can't catch me.

'Cause if you get too close, you know I'm gone
Like a cooool breeze.

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