Auto Pilots

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

A Taylor-designed Aerocar takes off, probably at or near Longview, Washington, circa 1949. (NASM 88-14257)
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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.

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