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Auto Pilots

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

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.

But the flying car remains a romantic vision, a kind of aeronautical mirage. The challenges of building one are perhaps exceeded only by the challenges of selling it. Because a vehicle worthy of both land and air has compromise written all over it, the technical challenges are numerous. The common elements are few: fuel tank, steering wheel, passenger and baggage compartments, wheels, and engine. For flight you need wings, ailerons, a horizontal stabilizer, a vertical tail, rudder, elevators, and a propeller, none of which has any business on a car. For the road, you need a drive train and bumpers, not to mention rear-view mirror and, nowadays, catalytic converters--all dead weight in the air. The history of flying cars can be written in a single sentence: As airplanes, they've all been too heavy.

Still the quest goes on. "A lot of people are just technically curious," says Borovec. His even-handed approach to presenting and encouraging the dreams of others prevents him from picking favorites or even handicapping any of the imaginative and divergent approaches, which range from simple kit-built vehicles to a James Bond-like concept with sleek lines and telescoping wings. (Even 007 himself hasn't seen a real flying car. The one in The Man With the Golden Gun was a static model "flown" by Hollywood special effects.) "There are some good designs out there" is all Borovec will say.

One of the most credible belongs to Molt Taylor, now 83. Though slowed by a stroke, he has worked up an Aerocar IV, which will use a Geo Metro auto for the car portion and a second engine for flight.

Taylor is revered as a kind of patron saint of the flying car. "Oh, I had a ball," he says with a high-pitched chuckle. Visitors to his home in Longview hear his string of stories--like the time he got a speeding ticket in Florida while driving an Aerocar to an auto show. And once, while delivering an Aerocar to pilot and actor Bob Cummings, Taylor made a spur-of-the-moment stop at an Earl Scheib paint shop. After verifying that, yes, the $39.95 two-color rate was good for any car, Taylor had them match the yellow and green colors of Nutra-Bio, the vitamin company that sponsored "The Bob Cummings Show," on which the Aerocar would thereafter regularly appear in the early 1960s. Taylor himself has been on TV countless times. His favorite appearance? The time he drove the Aerocar onto the stage of "I've Got a Secret" and, with the help of an assistant and while answering the questions of the blindfolded panel, went about the car-to-plane conversion. "Three minutes later there was an airplane sitting there," he says.

Taylor was a gifted aeronautical engineer, "crazy about airplanes" from adolescence. In 1942, as a Naval reservist, he became the first person to successfully "fly" a surface-to-surface missile to its target, and the following year, as a lieutenant commander, he headed the project that produced the first generation of cruise missiles. His resume also includes homebuilt aircraft like the Coot, an amphibious "floatwing" plane, and the Imp and Mini-Imp, two takes on a one-place sportplane with an inverted V-tail. An early version of an Imp helped launch his flying car quest. In 1946, while shopping for a plant in New Castle, Delaware, to build an amphibious sportplane he was then calling the Duckling, Taylor bumped into Robert E. Fulton Jr., soon to be heralded in Life magazine for his flying car, the Airphibian.

Taylor was impressed with Fulton's incarnation of a winged automobile--as was the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which later awarded it a type certificate, the first of only two flying cars ever certified for production (the other was Taylor's Aerocar).

"I saw it fly and watched him leave the wings and tail behind and drive off in the car," says Taylor. "I thought, What a good idea. But I can do better." Taylor reasoned that if the whole idea of a flying car was that it would give you the freedom to go where you pleased when you pleased, then leaving behind the flight components was a less than optimal engineering solution. His design put the wings, tail, and rear-mounted propeller into a trailer towed behind the car.

To keep the weight down, Taylor fashioned the car's outer panels out of fiberglass, years before the Corvette startled the automotive world with its composite skin. And, because the rear wheels were used for landing, the Aerocar employed what was then an automotive oddity: front wheel drive. The toughest engineering challenge proved to be dampening the power pulses, or torsional resonance, in the 10-foot-long drive shaft connecting the Aerocar's Lycoming engine to its pusher propeller. After months of investigating vibration dampers, Taylor read about a little-known French dry fluid coupling called a Flexidyne. In this clutch, tiny steel shot was packed into a nearly solid mass that absorbed the engine's power pulses.

Taylor's Aerocar Incorporated turned out a prototype and four more examples of the design now known as Aerocar I. In 1961, Portland, Oregon radio station KISN bought one for traffic reporting. That was also the year Taylor first glimpsed a bit of financial blue sky. He'd struck a deal with Ling-Temco-Vought, a Dallas-based company. They'd build 1,000 Aerocars at a projected cost of about $8,500 apiece, provided he could round up 500 firm orders. In two weeks he collected 278 deposits of $1,000 each and forwarded the money. But without another 222 orders, the deal fizzled.

Nine years later, Taylor's hopes rose again when Ford Motor Company took an interest in the Aerocar III. (The Aerocar II was a four-passenger flight-only fuselage.) The Model III had fully retractable wheels, which cut drag and boosted cruise speed 10 percent to nearly 120 mph. Lee Iacocca sent Donald Petersen, a vice president of product planning and research (and later the company's chairman), and Dick Place, a Ford executive with a pilot's license, to meet with Taylor in Longview.

Place's logbook dates his Aerocar flight to August 1970. He recalls being sufficiently impressed with both the flight and highway performance to suggest that Ford "at least take the next step or two investigating the possibilities." But in the face of the oil crisis and increased importation of Japanese cars, the company's interest cooled. And Place speculates that the career-minded Petersen probably didn't want to be "weighed down with advocacy of what most people would think of as a harebrained device."

Taylor made headlines with his Aerocars, but no money. In his basement is a huge library of videotapes, most of them made from Super-8 footage. "Look at it go, boy," he says. "Now watch how smooth it lands." There's Taylor, wearing a fedora, standing on the old sod runway. He hears himself pounce on an interviewer's question: "If it weren't for us nuts, you'd still be reading from candlelight and wearing button shoes.... The flying automobile is the future. It has to be, just as sure as they made wagons without horses."

Taylor chuckles, then says forcefully: "I still believe that."

"To me, it's simply a question of time," says Branko Sarh, a senior engineer at McDonnell Douglas Aerospace in Long Beach, California. As a teenager in Germany, Sarh was sketching flying car designs long before he ever heard of Molt Taylor. He studied aircraft and automotive design in college, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1980s he began concentrating on composites and automation, two key elements of his futuristic Advanced Flying Automobile.

"If someone today says flying cars, everyone looks backward, into history," Sarh says. "Oh, they were produced already: Curtiss and Taylor and ConVair. All these were excellent pioneering efforts. It was perfect to prove that a car can fly, but that's all they proved." Sarh feels the time is ripe--thanks in part to recent advances in lightweight composites and computer modeling techniques--for a major leap, well beyond some warmed-over newsreel version, to an entirely new flying car concept. His design, unlike most, puts the car before the airplane. His reasoning: "People will mainly see this vehicle on the ground. This must be a perfect car, first of all. The styling must be superb."

His four-passenger AFA, designed with the help of Merkel Weiss, an automotive engineer who teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, appears both sleek and stylish and boasts front and rear seat airbags, air conditioning, and a shifting diagram of P to R to N to D to F. At the push of a button, the car becomes flight-ready in seconds: Front wings telescope from the sides of the roof; rear stabilizers do likewise from the sides of the car behind the rear wheels; a pusher prop rises up from the trunk. In short, Sarh envisions a private airplane full of creature comforts and a high-performance automobile with the snob appeal to attract buyers. He figures 1,000 or so orders annually at $200,000 each would cover initial production costs. Some 10,000 orders per year would cut the cost to $120,000.

At the October 1994 Aerotech conference of the International Society of Automotive Engineers, held in Los Angeles, Sarh displayed a 1:5 scale model of his telescoping wing concept. Next will come a similarly scaled flying model of the entire vehicle. Building a prototype of his AFA, Sarh realizes, would be a multimillion-dollar venture, with millions more needed to certify such a hybrid for the highway and flight.

Sarh is optimistic about most aspects of his Advanced Flying Automobile, except locating the money to fund it. He hasn't even bothered to approach a car or airplane manufacturer. "Automotive companies simply don't have the aircraft experience, and airplane companies don't have any automotive experience," he says. He dreams of a benefactor "who wants to show the world he can create something."

A similar lack of funding has stalled Ken Wernicke's Aircar, which last year made the covers of both Popular Mechanics and a special issue of Discover. Known as "Mr. Tiltrotor" at Bell Helicopter Textron, where he worked for 35 years, Wernicke was lead engineer on the XV-15 and director of the V-22 Osprey Tiltrotor. He took early retirement in 1990 and formed Sky Technology, based in Hurst, Texas. He put its mission right on the company's letterhead: Specializing in Revolutionary Aircraft. Case in point: the Aircar.

Wernicke's design sidesteps car-to-plane and plane-to-car transformations by using low-aspect-ratio wings that are wider than they are long. Elaborate winglets on the end of the broad wings boost aerodynamic efficiency and make the Aircar about as wide as a bus. Wernicke says wind tunnel tests and flights with radio-controlled models show he's on track. He's drummed up media interest by driving around in a full-scale mockup that's eight and a half feet wide and shoehorning it into standard parking spaces.

And that's where he remains--in park. Meantime, he's test flying a 1:3 scale model. He figures he'd need $3 million to build two proof-of-concept vehicles, one for flight certification, a second to present to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "I think if we could fly it, we could sell it to some aircraft manufacturer," he says, "though it might have to be a foreign one, like Samsung Aerospace of South Korea." He admits, though, that highway approval has him worried.

Book 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations for automobiles invokes more than 700 requirements in some 50 categories, specifying everything from crashworthy bumpers to emissions standards to proper headlight beam patterns. But would all this have to apply to a flying automobile? Barry Felrice, associate administrator for safety performance standards at the NHTSA, suggests it might not. "Our standards apply to motor vehicles which are used primarily on public roads," says Felrice. In other words, if a flying car--or, to better make the case, a roadable airplane--were to spend, say, more than half its time aloft, it might be considered in the same off-road category as earth moving equipment and airport runway vehicles.

If Sarh's and Wernicke's concepts represent the high end, Roger Williamson's design embodies the low-road approach. Williamson, a retired Air Force fighter pilot who toils away in his San Antonio garage and admits, "I'm no engineer," believes a kit-built design like his low-wing Roadrunner is a more practical approach to making the flying car a reality. "I think if it's going to be done, it's got to be homebuilt, as simple as possible and as economical as possible," he says. "We all look at life from our own perspective. I don't have much money and I need a plane I can park in my garage."

Projected kit-built costs: around $25,000. Williamson, who has built four three-wheel cars, figures his three-wheel roadable aircraft will have an easier time meeting highway safety standards if it's classified as a motorcycle. "I'm sure there's going to be some eyebrows raised," he says,"but no law I know of says what a three-wheeled vehicle has to look like."

Williamson has spent $10,000 and has yet to shop for the used four-cylinder Rotax aircraft engine that he estimates will enable cruising speeds of 150 mph. Yet he works on. "It's a stupid waste of time," he says, "but when you're hooked, you're hooked."

There's also the re-hooked. Ed Sweeney, the Molt Taylor student who never lost his interest in model airplanes, went on to publish American Aircraft Modeler and RC Sportsman. After that he manufactured ultralights. He owns four Lotuses, an electric car, and, as he puts it, four and a half planes.

In 1988 Sweeney's son handed him the latest issue of Trade-A-Plane, urging: "Look at this ad for a Messerschmitt 109, Dad. Shouldn't we buy it to go along with our 209?" Sweeney was immediately on the phone, but not about the Messerschmitt. His gaze had fallen on an adjacent ad for an Aerocar. The next day he met with its Florida owner, who had been trucking it around as a static display. Sweeney prefers not to reveal the purchase price, which was somewhat blurred because the deal included a swap of autos. Suffice it to say he paid well in excess of Molt Taylor's original asking price of $15,000. Sweeney found it hard to hide his eagerness, especially after the Aerocar's logbook confirmed his suspicion: this was N102D, the one Bob Cummings had owned, and the same Aerocar he'd flown with Molt Taylor in 1959.

It wasn't just the vehicle that passed to Sweeney; in a sense it was also the Aerocar torch. After Sweeney had made the craft airworthy again and repainted it in the Nutra-Bio colors, he took it to airshows. He flew it for a Japanese film crew. He's logged about 200 hours in it, and flying it to Miami from his former home in the Florida fly-in community of Spruce Creek, he has experienced the convenience of landing and driving off to his destination. And he is at work on another flying car.

"We're taking existing ideas and putting them all together," Sweeney says. "Everything about the future Aerocar exists today." Paying homage to Taylor, Sweeney is calling his design Aerocar V. He also plans to use a Geo Metro, though a convertible in his case, to help facilitate hookup of the wing and tail section and flight components. Like Taylor, whose current design calls for a kit-built vehicle, Sweeney envisions giving his Aerocar V customers the option of cutting its weight by substituting composite panels. He also projects a second engine in the attachable airplane section and an inverted V tail. "We're looking at an empty weight of 2,840 pounds," he says, acknowledging a problem in getting the weight down to light-aircraft standards of about 2,000 pounds. But he breaks with Taylor on one key point.

"I'm not keen on trailering. I've done it with the Aerocar and I don't want to do it very often," Sweeney says, explaining those "real time" conversions Taylor enjoys showing off on film were accomplished under optimal conditions, guided by tape marks on the floor. Sweeney says he's spent more like 45 minutes on some conversions. "The whole idea of the flying car is to stay in motion, like a UPS or FedEx package," he says. "It needs to be less than 30 seconds to convert from car to airplane. If it's over that, the public wants no part of it."

Resurrecting the 1947 ConVairCar concept of airport-available airplane attachments, Sweeney envisions future Hertzes or Avises renting attachable airplane portions at airports. This vision is shared by Steven Crow, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Arizona. Crow's a member of the flying car fraternity--he calls his design the Starcar. He's working on using the Global Positioning System of satellite-based navigation to enable computer-piloted flying cars to maintain safe distances from one another. He imagines skyports located along interstate highways.

"Transform stations will resemble car washes but will be staffed by robots," he writes in a proposal titled "Back to the Future of Personal Aviation." "The traveler will drive toward a station entry and announce his destination by keypad. A robot will test data links and controls of the passenger module, while another fuels and trims a flight module for the journey.... The flight module will have GPS-based navigation and control equipment capable of negotiating the journey from takeoff to landing with no intervention by the traveler." Others share Crow's vision of automated flying cars, maintaining that most of the technology already exists and deeming computer-controlled flight more realistic than training and licensing the masses as pilots.

Before any of this is possible, the public will need to be re-romanced with a few flying cars soaring overhead. Sweeney hopes that's where he'll come in. He's spent hours modeling designs and running calculations on a computer, and additional weeks fashioning and flying scale models. Next he hopes to build a 1:4 version with sensors that will enable him to record and download flight data to a computer. He says he's committed to spending the next six years and up to $100,000 of family money on flight testing a full-scale prototype. "I'll build one," he says almost defiantly. "Then we'll see what happens." Sweeney was recently asked to join the Advanced General Aviation Technologies Experiment, a NASA-Federal Aviation Administration consortium designed to revitalize general aviation.

His voice drifts off. "Every time we've been to Oshkosh with the Aerocar and every time I've flown it to an aviation event, people keep coming by and saying, 'My Glasair, or whatever, is neat, but I don't use it that much. It was fun to build it, but it's not useful.' Pretty soon we're talking about a new Aerocar, and the question is always: How soon can I order one?"


To Build a Better Mousetrap

The marriage of automobile and airplane began early in the history of both vehicles. In 1917, just 14 years after the Wrights first flew and nine years after Henry Ford introduced the Model T, visitors to the Pan-American Aeronautic Exposition in New York City gaped at a hybrid called the Autoplane. Built by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, the Autoplane was a three-seat car design (in front sat a pilot/chauffeur, hence the nickname Flying Limousine) topped with triplane wings spanning 40 feet. It flew, but never well enough to muster serious interest.

In 1937 airplane designer Waldo Waterman rekindled interest in a flying car with his Arrowbile, a refinement of an earlier attempt he'd called the Arrowplane. Its three-wheel design sufficed for short drives to the airport; it fared worse on the open road. Airborne, it was said to be nearly stall-proof and impossible to spin.

The 1940s was the golden age of the flying automobile. The post-World War II boom in private aviation gave birth not only to Molt Taylor's Aerocar but to Robert Fulton's Airphibian in 1946 and the ConVairCar the following year. Fulton's craft flew well enough to be certified by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, and, with its propeller detached and flight unit removed, drove well enough to negotiate city traffic. The ConVairCar concept added a new twist: It topped a two-door sedan with a flight unit containing its own powerplant, which car owners would rent at the airport. Its creators talked of cars priced at $1,500 based on production runs of 160,000, but talk ended after the ConVairCar crashed on its third flight, out of fuel because its pilot had reportedly eyed the auto fuel gauge instead of the aero gauge.

In the 1950s and '60s, Leland Bryan produced a series of highway-certified folding-wing Roadables that used their pusher propellers for both air and road power. Bryan died in the crash of his Roadable III in 1974. And in 1973, Henry Smolinski, mimicking the ConVairCar rental unit concept, fastened the wings, tail, and aft engine of a Cessna Skymaster to a Ford Pinto. The wing struts collapsed on its first test flight, killing Smolinski and the pilot.

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