Flying car makes debut in New York

  • 11-Apr-2012 07:04 EDT
aei-flyingcar-412.jpg

The Terrafugia Transition Roadable Aircraft takes to a suburban Boston road. Note that its side mirrors extend past its folded wings.

Flying cars were the stuff of men’s magazine covers for many years, but a production prototype of the Terrafugia Transition Roadable Aircraft displayed at the New York International Auto Show provides a look at a real-world product. It’s designed to fit into the “light sport plane” category, and with fold-up wings into an owner’s garage. So it can be driven on public roads from home to and from an airport, and at a pricetag of $279,000 is in the category of an ultra-luxury car.

Terrafugia, a company founded by pilots and engineers from MIT, said that the Transition had been successfully flight-tested. It claims 100 paid orders with $10,000 deposits and promises delivery of the first production model early next year.

The light sport plane license has fewer requirements than a conventional private pilot’s license, and applicants normally complete them in far fewer instructional hours, although rarely as little as the regulation-specified 20-h minimum. The Transition is a two-seater that, with the light sport license, can be used for personal (non-commercial) travel and is intended for use in daylight under VFR (visual flight rules), not instrument flying. A private pilot is free to fly at night, however, and a night flight package is an option. A valid driver’s license also is required for road use, of course, and the company is working with insurers to develop a dual policy package that will cover both in-the-air and on-the-ground operation.

The Transition is a four-wheeler vs. the traditional tricycle landing gear, and it was designed with Dassault's Solidworks 3D plastics software. The engine is a European-built Rotax 912 ULS, from BRP Powertrain GMBH & Co. KG, Austrian maker of light sport aircraft powerplants. It is rated at 100 hp (75 kW) and 2000 h time between overhaul. The three-blade composite propeller is a push-type behind the cabin.

The Transition airframe is almost entirely carbon fiber, and gross mass of the plane, including engine, is 970 lb (440 kg). Gross mass for takeoff is 1430 lb (649 kg), so with a full 23-gal (87 L) tank, only 422 lb (191 kg) remains for the two passengers, including possibly their golf bags (for which a special compartment is provided). The Woburn, MA, company is making its own molds for small parts, but large molds will be sourced from a supplier to the boating industry, according to Richard Gersh, Vice President of Business Development, Terrafugia.

The fold-up wings are deployed into flying position by linear electric motors and linkages, producing a wingspan of 27 ft (8.3 m). Overall length of the Transition is only 18.8 ft (5.7 m), and with wings folded up the width is just 90 in (2286 mm), only 3.5 in (89 mm) more than a Hummer H-1.

Side mirrors extend past the edges of the folded wings from storage compartments in the front of the fuselage. They are spring-loaded and are a simple push-to-release. There’s also a rear view camera.

The Transition has a computer with touch screen interface, and in addition the glove box is sized for a tablet computer, as sectional maps used by private pilots are available in this format.

The standard feature list also includes such additional automotive content as four-wheel hydraulic disc brakes, DOT-highway rated tires, collapsible steering column, tire pressure monitoring system, windshield wipers and defrost, sun visors, and LED taillights and turn signals. For in-the-air, of course it has such avionics as a radio, transponder, and ELT (emergency locator transmitter).

In automotive use the Transition power flow is through a CVT (continuously variable transmission) to the rear wheels. It has a rated road speed of 65 mph (105 km/h), and delivers a claimed 35 mpg. On the road it meets multipurpose vehicle regulations, as it’s equipped with driver and passenger airbags, auto-tensioning seatbelts with force limiters, and a collapsible steering column, and it is designed with a safety cage that has crumple zones. It doesn’t have to pass side-impact tests, and the lightweight doors can even be removed for aerial photography.

Top airspeed is 100 kts (115 mph or 185 km/h), and it cruises at 93 kts (107 mph or 172 km/h). Stall speed is 45 kts (52 mph or 83 km/h). The Transition requires 1700 ft (518 m) for takeoff over a 50-ft (15-m) obstacle, although the company’s official recommendation is a runway of 2500-3000 ft (762-914 m). The recommended ceiling is 10,000 ft (3048 m), and the plane does have an airframe parachute.

The Transition burns 5.0 gal/h (19 L/h) at cruise, and it runs on 91 octane premium pump gasoline. The maximum range is about 490 mi (789 km), but if necessary the airplane/car can land at the nearest suitable airport and be driven to a gasoline filling station for a refuel. A similar option exists if the weather suddenly deteriorates. It can land and be driven to its destination.

All maintenance and repairs, including those for automotive-type systems, must be performed by (or under direct supervision) of an A&P (airframe and powerplant) mechanic to maintain the Transition’s flight-legal status.

The absence of air conditioning would not be an issue for a light plane, as cool air is always available at altitude. But a $279,000 car without it could very well be a problem in hot weather, the company conceded. It is looking at the issue, and lists A/C as an option, but the buyers may well have to make the sacrifice because of the load limit.

Why does Terrafugia expect to succeed where so many others have failed to build a flying car? One of the answers is the light sport plane category itself and its simpler requirements; a second is the engineering team it assembled. But in addition, it has the advantage of reliable modern electronics and composite materials. Further, it has worked with Federal and state agencies to avoid legal pitfalls, and that may be the most important step of all.

Terrafugia also anticipates a “Zipcar of the Air” market for the vehicle, with rentals at airports for vacation and business trips. Cliff Allen, Vice President of Sales at the company, told AEI the company’s business case begins at an annual production rate of 35 Transitions. The first production will be from its facility in Woburn, MA. A plant for the 35-per-year rate has not yet been selected.

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