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Auto Pilots

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

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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