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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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.

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