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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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."

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