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'Flying car' goes to market

A Boston-area company plans to begin flight tests this year of a two-seater airplane that moonlights as a car.
Image: Transition
The Transition aircraft, shown in this illustration with its wings partially unfolded, can shift from road-worthiness to airworthiness. The vehicle carries a price tag of $194,000. Terrafugia
/ Source: Discovery Channel

The aptly named Transition takes a stab at bridging the gap between automobiles and airplanes. Some people call it a flying car. The company designing and selling the vehicle prefers the term "roadable aircraft."

Either way, it boils down to this: You sit down behind the steering wheel, drive to the runway, unfold two wings and take off. You can fly 500 miles on a tank of gas — regular unleaded —and when you land, you simply fold up the wings and drive where you want to go. At the end of the day, you fly back, drive home and park inside your garage.

Terrafugia, of Woburn, Mass., is not the first firm to attempt what may be the ultimate hybrid.

"It's probably a concept that people have been dreaming up since there have been airplanes and cars," said Dick Knapinski with the Experimental Aircraft Association, a 55-year-old aviation group based in Oshkosh, Wisc.

A company called Aerocar of Longview, Wash., debuted one of the first flying cars in 1949. The company built six prototypes, one of which is sitting in the EAA's museum, but never went into production.

Terrafugia, founded in 2006 by a group of MIT students, has taken deposits for more than 40 Transitions and plans to begin deliveries in 2010, said Richard Gersh, vice president of business development.

The vehicles sell for $194,000.

Advances in materials and propulsion technologies are among the reasons why Terrafugia is in position for commercial success. But equally important, says Knapinski, is an easing of government regulations on private aircraft and pilot licensing.

In 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration created a new category of aircraft and license for sport aviation, an attempt to re-awaken interest in flying after steady drops in the number of licensed pilots.

In the United States, about 600,000 people are licensed to fly aircraft, a drop of 25 percent since 1980, Knapinski said.

"The FAA and the aviation industry realized there has to be a way to get people interested in flying. Even the airline pilots of today had to start somewhere with basic flying. There had to be an entry point that was practical and affordable," he said.

Sport pilot licenses don't require as many hours of training as private and commercial pilot licenses, though sport fliers are not eligible to take off and land at runways with air traffic control towers. The medical requirements for sport pilots also are less stringent than for other types of pilot licenses, matching what is needed for a driver's license.

"What the FAA and the government say by having that rule is that these vehicles have the same level of complexity as motor vehicles," Knapinski told Discovery News. "You fly in non-complex airspace at relatively low speed."

Regulations covering the new category of sport aviation aircraft likewise are reduced.

"It gives us an opportunity," said Terrafugia's Gersh. "We could never compete with Cessna or Boeing."

One of the biggest obstacles facing a company like Terrafugia in launching a personal aircraft is not technical in nature or even cost, added Knapinski. It's perception.

"The comfort level for a significant percentage of the population is not there," Knapinski said. "They just don't believe they can operate this type of machine."

Perhaps having an airplane under the same roof as the family car will be just the ticket.