Escape from earth
It’s still a concept and there have been other concepts for flying cars for at least 90 years before Terrafugia started up. The price of aviation fuel (av-gas) is going up and sport pilots have to add that to a $400-$500 a month hangar rental. If av-gas continues to go up in price there will be fewer airplanes sold and some of the smaller airports could be looking at extinction. During the week the sport pilot goes to work and they pay for their car gas and the loan that looks like a mortgage on their car. According to Carl Dietrich, CEO Terrafugia, the Transition is combining the two for the best of both worlds.
One of the people Dietrich says is interested in a guy, let’s call him Joe, that visit’s farms throughout the mid-west every day. I can imagine Joe getting up every morning, schlepping himself to the airport two hours early, without a bottle of water or anything else to quench his thirst. He drives from his house in his beat-up seven-year-old car to the economy lot of the airport, gets on the lot bus and stares at nothing for 10 minutes while the driver calls out the airline names. The lines are long in the checkout stands now because everyone is checking their bags, otherwise, they have to buy all new shaving gear when they get to their final destination. Joe takes off his shoes, his belt and coins, and places all his bags on the security belt and hopes he didn’t get the “SSSS” on his ticket which means he has to be stripped search. The first leg of the flight for Joe goes seamlessly, but when he lands he hears there is bad weather and the puddle jumper he was going to take has been delayed for two hours. He wonders, silently, if he should just rent a car from where he is and drive the four hours or wait out the storm. Joe waits out the storm and gets to his final air stop where it is dark, rents a car and heads to his hotel. A waste of a day, but he will see his farmer tomorrow.
“Joe” and Carl Dietrich see a different way to do business. “There are over 5,000 small airports in the United States”, says Dietrich, “instead of flying from hub to hub to get to your final destination, why not drive to your local airport, do a pre-flight inspection on your airplane and fly to the closest airport to your destination. If there is a thunderstorm you can land at an airport along the way, fold the airplane into a car and drive to the next airport and take off again.”
My local airport is 5 miles away, the international one is 40 miles away. I would save that gas, the $10 a day for parking, the rental car fee at the other end and the $2 for a bottle of water. The other day I flew from Sacramento to Santa Barbara, CA on United airlines. The flight was supposed to leave at 7:30 am and arrive at 1:30 pm. I left my home at 5:30 am and arrived at Santa Barbara airport around 4 pm, 10 1/2 hours later. According to mapquest, it would have taken me 7 hours to drive there.
According to the FAAs Direct User Access Terminal (DUAT) service for pilots the Terrafugia Transition would have taken 2 hours 40 minutes to fly there, figuring in the winds of the day. The plane hasn’t been built, but there is already interest from the United States, Canada, Australia, and even the Middle East. According to Dietrich, it’s not just the 30 miles per gallon the Transition gets, but the ease of getting to and fro. Dietrich has had his private pilots license since his college days at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he received the Lemelson-MIT student prize of $30,000.
In a press release about Dietrich receiving the award was the statement, “In my 30 years as a teacher at MIT, I cannot recall a clearer example of the Edison mindset,” said MIT Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, one of Dietrich’s recommenders for the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. “Carl is routinely cycling back and forth between what is known and what is possible.” Or, as he is now referred to, Dr. Dietrich.
Stretch, a home-built airplane geek, and webmaster for www.carlist.com was at the conference call with Dietrich and gave me his technical thoughts:
The perspective of a Homebuilt flyer:
I fly a fast, taildragger Thorp T-18. Agile, light, responsive. A flyers sports car.
Terrafugia’s Transition air/ground vehicle is the antithesis of my homebuilt but that is AOK.
Designer/flyer/inventor Carl Dietrich, all of 29 years of passion is the key. Speaking to him illustrates why being at the correct moment in the space-time continuum can be a fortuitous event for all of us.
The key to Terrafugia’s Transition air/ground concept is Carl’s synergy of design, materials, and burgeoning low-cost digital avionics.
The relatively recent approval of the FAA type Sport Pilot license opened the gates of a new type of aircraft and flyer. That event, as Carl noted, triggered his long desire to integrate his flying passion with a practical alternative to driving or flying duality of travel.
You drive to the airport, you fly to the next airport, you rent a car. Wouldnt it better to just use one vehicle to accomplish the task? Of Course.
Carl noted that the statistically weather-related cause of light aircraft accidents could be avoided with Terrafugia’s Transition. How? One would simply divert to the 5,000 small airfields in the United States for example if weather ahead on the route deteriorated. Land, retract your wings and drive under the weather to your destination.
Roadworthy nuff for the Feds?
Flying is only half of the Transition goal. Driving is Mr. Hyde or Dr. Jekyll, depending on your comfort with driving or flying. What says the Feds Carl?
Carl noted, “We are talking with NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,) now in fact. Although the design does incorporate a number of the safety features of the FMVSS, (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Regulations) there are situations where the rules for cars come into conflict with the rules for aircraft.”
Carl continues, “…the vehicle (Transition) is not primarily designed for use on the road (it is primarily an airplane), we are asking the NHTSA office of chief counsel to rule that we do not fit inside NHTSA”s current definition of a ˜motor vehicle.”
Composite, read non-aluminum, is what the material for the fuselage, wings, including the canard out front will be used. The advantages are with weight and aerodynamics (read fuel economy, performance) design.
The Transition will use low-cost sophisticated avionics, GPS, auto-pilot weather radar. Carl explained that the price/feature functionality of avionics continues to improve giving the pilot more safety for less cost. “We haven’t settled on a package yet,” Carl noted.
Design, flight speeds:
Carl went through 56 design iterations to arrive at the Transition shape. “Kinda what I thought it would be,” noted Carl.
The Transition is currently designed to be powered by a 4-stroke, 4 cylinders horizontally opposed, dual spark ignition, liquid-cooled cylinder dual carbureted Rotax 912 ULS engine running super-unleaded autogas or 100LL avgas.
Cruising at 120mph, landing at 65mph, estimated hourly fuel burn at 4 gallons would equate to 30mpg in the air. Terrafugia’s Transition estimated ground mileage would be 40 hwy and 30 city. GTOW, (Gross Take-Off Weight) 1320lbs gives a usable payload weight of 430lbs. Vs (Stall speed) 51mph, Vr (takeoff rotation) 80mph, and maximum level flight speed is 130mph.
Carl noted landing characteristics would be different than the traditional tricycle landing gear of most aircraft. “Center of gravity is back further for driving stability,” Carl noted. This would translate into a “pancake” landing event instead of a smoother painting it on the runway. “Once the rear wheels touch…” the front two wheels come down promptly; more the result of the center of gravity that the pilots skill level.
The Transition will have rudder pedals for traditional slip crosswind landing techniques. Carl has landed the flight model in a simulated 15kt crosswind. 1500 foot takeoff run and grass strip capability will permit the Transition to land at one airfield, drive to another and takeoff.
“One the other most fun things for me to do is to come in on a hard slip & I wouldn’t want to give that up.” Carl enthusiastically noted.