When I was six years old, I told my older cousin, Tanis, that one day I’d be flying myself to work. More than 30 years later, I had bought my first plane and was using it to commute between Central and South Florida for business, but it wasn’t exactly “flying to work.” I still had to drive to the airport, park my car, get to my aircraft, then on the other side I’d have to rent a car to drive to the office. For my dream to come true, things needed to change.
In 1974, the evil Scaramanga captured the imagination when, as the villain in the Bond movie Goldfinger, he put wings onto his AMC Matador coupe and flew away with his sidekick in tow and a Bond girl in the trunk. And it was a real flying car, flown by a real stuntman.
Throughout the 40 years since the iconic Bond movie and car flight, the idea of being able to drive out of your garage, unfold some wings, and fly to work has captured our collective imagination. At first, the designs were ungainly—surely no one can say the flying AMC was elegant in its lines—and impractical. Now, enterprising companies aim to make the fantasy mainstream. Not that trying to make a flying car is anything new, but only recently have engineers come up with commercially viable designs. And even some of the more recent attempts have fallen short.
Moller Skycar 400
One very interesting and high performing (in the air) design is the Skycar 400 (and its little sister, the 200) from Moller International out of Davis, California. There is no mistaking that this is an airplane first and a car second. Its four ducted fan engine nacelles, each powered by two 120 hp engines, lift the Skycar 400 off the ground vertically then, like the military’s V-22 Osprey, tilt to transition the aircraft to aerodynamic flight. This configuration allows a lot of flexibility, including an impressive cruise speed of 308 mph at 20,000 feet. This is likely because the Skycar is more of a car for the sky than a flying car. It is only capable of driving on the road for short distances and at speeds of less than 30 mph. So while it is a wonderful aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities (VTOL), and something I’d love to own and operate myself, a true flying car it is not. Its estimated sticker price is a cool half-mil.
Another design I found very interesting is the PAL-V One. PAL-V stands for personal air and land vehicle. This is not a traditional aircraft – it is a gyrocopter which has a spinning blade like a helicopter, but uses it not to rise off the ground, but for aerodynamic lift while flying forward. Its thrust comes from a rear-mounted propeller engine—with really interesting flip-out blades. It has very impressive road performance, going 0-60 in less than 8 seconds and having a range of up to 750 miles on a single tank of gas. As you would expect from this design, its flight speed is low at 97 knots, but it can take off in a meager 540 feet and land in an amazing 100 feet, meaning almost any open patch can serve for operations. Its seats are stacked front-back, so its more like a motorcycle than car. Due to its compact design and low flight speed, this isn’t a long range burner like the Skycar, but it seems perfectly suited for a number of other operations including flying over traffic to your office on the other side of town. The estimated cost is $300,000, which seems high. Gyrocopter designs tend to be less expensive and I’m guessing this price will drop if demand is high enough.
About a year ago, the company AeroMobil flew (and drove) its prototype AeroMobil 3.0 flying car for the first time. This distinctly modern design almost looks like a car on the road and carries surprisingly elegant lines while in the air. It is what I would consider the first true, viable flying car attempt. With a sports car interior and styling, it is truly a blended car/plane design.
Still, it has some things I’m not crazy about. First, its propeller is open bladed. I’m not a fan of that on flying cars because of the safety issues. By their nature, flying cars are not is as controlled environments as aircraft and open blades are a liability. It’s not that tough, or expensive, to turn that into a ducted fan. It both looks better and is safer. Second, its performance is lacking. Its aerial range is a tolerable 435 miles, but its top speed of 108 knots is low for anything other than a commuter. That’s likely due to its low-power Rotax 912 engine. While it just sips on fuel (less than 4 gallons per hour), it comes at a cost of performance. On the road it’s a different story. Of all the designs, it is one of the more “car-like.” Additionally, its miserly fuel consumption in the air carries over to the highway where it gets about 30 miles per gallon. One big issue, however, with the Rotax 912 is that it’s an aviation engine and requires 100 octane low lead aviation fuel. It’s not something you can find at your corner Shell station. Some things I like about the design are its really cool, power-deployed wings and its short airfield performance (~750 feet for takeoff and 150 for landing). It carries two passengers. There is no price listed for it other than “somewhere between a super car and an airplane.”
Another design that I put in the ‘it works, but…’ category is the Terrafugia Transition. Like the Aeromobil, it uses the Rotax 912 engine and with it come all the same limitations I mention above (speed, gas type, etc.). Unlike the Aeromobil, this thing looks more like a movie prop than either an aircraft or a car. No disrespect to the designers at Terrafugia, but this thing looks like a duck. I couldn’t find the cockpit dimensions of the Aeromobil, but it looks wider than the modest 48 inches in the Terrafugia. Like the Aeromobil, it has good takeoff and landing performance and similar airspeed and weight characteristics. The estimated price is $279,000.
This last design I’m going to highlight is another from Terrafugia, only the ugly duckling has turned into a really cool, badass swan—with a better name to boot: the TF-X. Okay, so this one isn’t even off the drawing board yet, but it offers more than a glimpse of things to come. First, unlike the most of the other models discussed, it is VTOL, or vertical takeoff and landing. Twin electrical engine pods at the ends of its wings have folding blades and give it the VTOL capability. It is a hybrid (actually a plug-in hybrid), using batteries/electric to travel on the ground and power the engine pods while in the air. It has a main gas engine to propel it forward during flight and recharge the batteries.
Unlike the two preceding flying cars, the TF-X uses a ducted fan for its main engine. I like this. Also unlike the other two, it carries four people and travels at a very respectable 173 knots, making it suitable for longer journeys. It has a decent 500 mile flying range. One of the things that concerns me the most about flying cars is the propensity for incidental damage while on the ground. Unlike airports, which are, by and large, security controlled, people will park these in parking lots and drive them on crowded streets. Nicking an exposed propeller or getting a “door ding” on an aerodynamic surface is downright expensive, not to mention a safety concern. The TF-X tucks away many critical components while in its ground configuration. Overall, it is very buttoned up and really looks good as both a car and a plane. Don’t underestimate the power of aesthetics. If something doesn’t look good, it’s not going to sell. There is no cost estimate for the TF-X, but one can assume it will be more expensive than most the other flying cars listed here. One thing is for sure about this flying car: if I can afford it when it comes out, I’m going to buy it.
When I first saw the Skycar 400, I thought it was an interesting compact airplane. When the Terrafugia Transition was unveiled, it was a step in the right direction, but not something I saw as commercially viable. The PAL-V One was the first option I thought had real possibilities with its compact design and commuter capabilities. The AeroMobil 3.0 brought sports car design to the table and gave hope that flying cars could really make it. Yet it still wasn’t quite there for me. The TF-X changed everything. It has the perfect match of design, appeal, capabilities and safety. It is still 8-12 years away from operation, but when it gets here, it, and the others like it sure to come along, will be game changers.
Photo and video credits: Moller, Terrafugia, AeroMobil, PAL-V