What has four wheels and flies? The dream of a roadable airplane continues.
- By John Grossman
- Air & Space magazine, January 1996
(Page 6 of 7)
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