Flying car’s maiden flight a success

Logging 37 seconds in the air, a prototype of a flying car completed its first test flight earlier this month in upstate New York.

The Transition “roadable” aircraft was created by Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia Inc., a firm founded four years ago by MIT graduates.

The company reported today that the flying car completed its first flight at Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, N.Y. on March 5 with retired U.S. Air Force Col. Phil Meteer at the controls.

The short flight was confined to the expanse of the runway, but it was enough to allow the company to test the Transition’s stability and controllability.

The flight comes after six months of ground testing — the flying car has been driven under its own power in on-road test drives and in tests of its taxiing capability.

“This flight is a symbol of a new freedom in aviation. It’s what enthusiasts have been striving for since 1918,” said Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich in a statement.

The two-seater vehicle fits into the light sport aircraft category and has an anticipated price tag of $148,000.

In an interview in January Richard Gersh, a vice- president at Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia, said the company already has received more than 40 orders for the Transition.

He hopes the first one will be in a customer’s hands by next year.

Gersh called the flying car a dream come true. “I’m not sure it’s up there with the Wright brothers but it’s awfully close.”

He noted that in the past several months the vehicle has been driven under its own power in on-road test drives and in tests of its taxiing capability at the Lawrence Municipal Airport in North Andover, Mass.

Then in December, The Transition was transported to upstate New York where it underwent high-speed taxiing tests, meaning that it was driven at higher speeds by its own propeller.

“We’re not going to have a flying car, as people think of it, for a while,” said Anna Dietrich, Terrafugia’s chief operating officer, in an earlier interview.

“I would never say it’s not going to happen, but today the infrastructure is not there, nor is the training, nor are the avionics that would make the training unnecessary. What makes sense right now is a ‘roadable’ aircraft.”

Dietrich said the idea of a such a vehicle is what fired up the imaginations of Terrafugia’s founders and pushed them to launch the company.

The problem, however, is that the U.S. doesn’t have the infrastructure to support vehicles that both fly in the air and travel on surface roads regularly.

Unlike runways, roads pass in front of houses, grocery stores and office buildings. And a sky filled with small planes piloted by people who don’t have pilot’s licenses could be problematic, to say the least.

Dietrich noted that there are about 6,000 public airports in the U.S., and most people are, on average, within 20 miles of one.

The idea, she said, is to take advantage of this underutilized infrastructure.

With a drivable aircraft, a pilot could fly into a small airport and, instead of getting a rental car or waiting for a taxi, simply fold up the plane’s wings and drive off.

“You have to be a pilot to fly The Transition,” said Dietrich. “And we just really don’t have the technology to have an autopilot built in so people can just get in it and say, ‘Fly me to the grocery store.’ It’s an airplane designed to be flown by a pilot in the infrastructure we already have, which is the airports.”

Foldable wings, though, may not make some passengers feel safe in the sky. Dietrich said making sure the wings stay erect while in flight was one of Terrafugia’s biggest engineering challenges.

“We tackled that one first,” she added. “There are a number of interlocks in place – some electrical, some mechanical. To activate the mechanism that folds or deploys the wings, you have to be on the ground.”


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